Global Holidays at Home: Indulging in Brazil's Carnival

Who knew forty days of prayer, fasting from meat, and practicing simple living would give rise to one of the biggest parties on earth, celebrated throughout the Catholic world but most especially in Brazil? Carnival, which literally means “to remove meat,” is one of the country’s most sacred rituals – not to mention one heck of a festivity! 

But don’t plan the family trip to Rio just yet. You can avoid the barely-clad dancers and drunken masses by creating your own Brazilian Carnival at home, which is a little safer than braving the real thing.

Before there was Carnival

Lent, the forty days preceding Easter, is traditionally a time of prayer, repentance, and abstinence in the Catholic church. And, surrounding these traditions, Catholics in Medieval Europe decided it was necessary to squeeze in as much merriment as possible before the somber season began. After all – it’s also the beginning of spring.

Thus, parties and festivals sprung up to ensure that any foods forbidden during Lent would be used before the religious season began. Because we all know that food and people are the secret sauce of parties, it’s not hard to imagine what happened next.

When the Portuguese settled in Brazil in the early 18th century, bringing their Catholicism as well as their traditions, something utterly different began to emerge. Dance and music rooted in African origins and spiced with Cuban and European influences contributed to what we now know as samba, a distinctly Brazilian sound. The festivities of Europe became a tradition fully Brazilian.

A whole-hearted celebration of life has always been the hallmark of Carnival, illustrated in some ways by the costumes. Slaves and slave-owners, as well as rich and poor would often trade clothes for the three days during Carnival’s parades, acknowledging their genuine equality in spite of their different stations in life.

Costumed for Carnival

The first step to bringing Carnival home to your family is the costumes. If your kids take dance classes, they might want to imitate one of the styles of the samba schools all over Brazil. Each school has a different, elaborate costume to wear in the parade. But choosing your own design is just as fun.

You’ll need a big, floppy hat, for starters. For a samba look, have your kids decorate it by gluing long feathers all around the hat to turn your child into a glowing peacock. You can also get a tall, wide hat, and weigh down the center with fruit. Wrap a cloth around the hat like a turban, and you’ll have a Chiquita banana look.

Brazil’s national colors are yellow and green, so you might want to integrate them into the rest of your costume if you want to show some local spirit. Kids can stick with the feather theme and buy a simple muslin or cotton outfit, then get crazy with the fabric glue, sequins, and feathers to spice things up.

If your kids are more into Halloween costumes and characters, that’s no problem. Carnival participants dress in all types of costumes. For a fun twist true to the Carnival spirit, your kids can try cross-dressing: give your son the princess costume and your daughter the superhero – or have the adults and the kids switch clothes – to appreciate the equalizing effect of the original Carnival celebrations.

Get your neighbors involved in a parade that stretches all the way down your street.

Eat Like It’s the Last Time

If you’re a practicing Catholic, this will be the last time you see meat, flour, and sweets for forty days. Even if you’re not, it’s just a good excuse to go wild.

Hearty Brazilian dishes are heavy on the meat, which is usually served with a spicy sauce. You can cook a meat dish in a Brazilian marinade overnight, or try the street food variety. Make sausage or hot dogs, and add the spice afterwards. Smother them in spicy ketchup or hot sauce for a Brazilian zing. See how hot your kids can handle it!

Then, make a game of using all the flour and sugar in the house in brownies, cupcakes, or cookies. One famous Brazilian street snack, deep fried tapioca, is pretty easy to make. Cook powdered tapioca on the stove until it turns into a pancake. Then, add coconut and condensed milk, cheese, or a savory filling. Add more tapioca powder and flip the pancake over, sealing your filling in for a delicious filled tapioca pancake.

An Animated Carnival

Sit the younger ones down in front of animated adventure Rio, about a rare Minnesota blue bird who thinks he’s the only one of his kind. When he discovers there’s another bird like him living in Rio de Janeiro, he and his owner make the trip to Brazil, and discover the culture that makes Brazil’s coastal paradise a worldwide sensation.

Kids will learn about Carnival, as well as other Brazilian customs, while enjoying a fun, bird-brained adventure. It’s a perfect way to round out your costumed festivities and give you some more ideas for next year’s feathered dress.

Planning on celebrating Carnival this year? What part are you most excited about?

Cover image via Stanislaw Tokarski /

Tags : celebrations   holidays from around the world   carnival   lent   global citizen   brazilian holidays   catholic holidays   

No Comments.