Vacation With the Islanders: Caribbean Festivals
Cold winters send many travelers to the Caribbean for a break from the snow and ice, but even when the weather’s warm at home, there are plenty of reasons to visit the Caribbean. No matter what your interests are, you’re sure to find something to do in the islands year-round, especially when you consider the many delightful festivals to take in.
The best-known Caribbean festival is Carnival, which is sometimes spelled “Carnaval.” On many islands, this event takes place just before Ash Wednesday, but the dates vary from island to island. This event is generally an island-wide party, so while some parents with younger children may not consider Carnival the most appropriate festival, those interested in experiencing a genuine slice of island culture will usually enjoy this event.
These Caribbean Carnivals all have several common themes many originating from Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, based on folklore, culture, religion,and tradition (thus relating to the European use of the word, not on amusement rides, as the word “carnival” is often used in American English). Carnival tradition is based on a number of disciplines including: “Playing Mas”/Masquerade; Calypso Music and crowning a Calypso King or Monarch; Panorama (Steel Band Competition); Jouvert morning; and a number of other traditions.
Where did the word “carnival” come from?
Hundred and hundreds of years ago, the followers of the Catholic religion in Italy started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent. Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival, carnevale — which means “to put away the meat.” As time passed, carnivals in Italy became quite famous; and in fact the practice spread to France, Spain, and all the Catholic countries in Europe. Then as the French, Spanish, and Portuguese began to take control of the Americas and other parts of the world, they brought with them their tradition of celebrating carnival.
The dynamic economic and political history of the Caribbean are indeed the ingredients of festival arts as we find them today throughout the African and Caribbean Diaspora. Once Columbus had steered his boat through Caribbean waters, it was only a few hundred years before the slave trade was well established. By the early 19th century, some six million slaves had been brought to the Caribbean. Between 1836 and 1917, indentured workers from Europe, west and central Africa, southern China, and India were brought to the Caribbean as laborers.
African influences on carnival traditions
Important to a Caribbean Carnival, arts are the ancient African traditions of parading and moving in circles through villages in costumes and masks. Circling villages was believed to bring good fortune, to heal problems, and chill out angry relatives who had died and passed into the next world. Carnival traditions also borrow from the African tradition of putting together natural objects (bones, grasses, beads, shells, fabric) to create a piece of sculpture, a mask, or costume — with each object or combination of objects representing a certain idea or spiritual force.
Feathers were frequently used by Africans in their motherland on masks and headdresses as a symbol of our ability as humans to rise above problems, pains, heartbreaks, illness — to travel to another world to be reborn and to grow spiritually. Today, we see feathers used in many, many forms in creating carnival costumes.
African dance and music traditions transformed the early carnival celebrations in the Americas, as African drum rhythms, large puppets, stick fighters, and stilt dancers began to make their appearances in the carnival festivities.
In many parts of the world, where Catholic Europeans set up colonies and entered into the slave trade, carnival took root. Brazil, once a Portuguese colony, is famous for its carnival, as is Mardi Gras in Louisiana (where African-Americans mixed with French settlers and Native Americans). Carnival celebrations are now found throughout the Caribbean in Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada, Dominica, Haiti, Cuba, St. Thomas, St. Marten; in Central and South America in Belize, Panama, Brazil; and in large cities in Canada and the U.S. where Caribbean people have settled, including Brooklyn, Miami, and Toronto. Even San Francisco has a carnival!
Pick An Island And Date
Local Caribbean Carnivals
Approximate dates are given for the concluding festivities. Carnival season may last for over a month prior to the concluding festivities, and the exact dates vary from year to year.
- Anguilla – Anguilla Summer Festival, early August
- Antigua and Barbuda
- Antigua – Antigua Carnival, early August]
- Barbuda – Caribana, early June
- Aruba – Carnival, February, Ash Wednesday
- The Bahamas – Junkanoo, late December/early January
- Barbados – Crop Over, early August
- Belize – Carnival, September
- Bonaire – Carnival, February Ash Wednesday
- British Virgin Islands
- Tortola – BVI Emancipation (August) Festival, early August
- Virgin Gorda – Virgin Gorda Easter Festival Celebrations, late March/early April
- Cayman Islands – Batabano, late April/early May
- Cuba – Carnival of Santiago de Cuba, July
- Cuba – Havana Carnival, July/August
- Curaçao – Carnival, February, Ash Wednesday
- Dominica – Carnival, February, Ash Wednesday
- Dominican Republic – Dominican Carnival, February, Dominican Independence Day
- Carriacou – Carriacou Carnival, February, Ash Wednesday
- Grenada – Spicemas, early August
- Guadeloupe – Carnaval – February, Ash Wednesday
- Guyana – Mashramani (Mash), February 23, Guyanese Republic Day
- Haiti – Kanaval, February, Ash Wednesday
- Jamaica – Bacchanal, late March/early April
- Martinique – Carnival, February, Ash Wednesday
- Montserrat – Montserrat Festival, early January, New Year’s Day
- Puerto Rico – Carnaval de Ponce, February, Ash Wednesday
- Saba – Saba Summer Festival, late July/early August
- Saint-Barthélemy – Carnival, February, Ash Wednesday
- Saint Lucia – Carnival, July
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Saint Kitts – Carnival, December/January
- Nevis – Culturama, late July/early August
- Saint-Martin – Carnival, February, Ash Wednesday
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines – Vincy Mas, late June/early July
- Saint Eustatius – Statia Carnival, late July/early August
- Sint Maarten – Carnival, late April/early May
- Trinidad and Tobago
- Trinidad – Carnival, February, Ash Wednesday
- Tobago – Tobago Carnival, February, Ash Wednesday
- Turks and Caicos – Junkanoo, late December/early January, Three King’s Day
- United States Virgin Islands
- Saint Croix – Crucian Festival, late December/early January Three King’s Day
- Saint John – St. John Carnival, July 3-4, V.I. Emancipation Day and U.S. Independence Day
- Saint Thomas – V.I. Carnival, late April/early May
Although each island has its own style of celebration, one thing you’re certain to find is a distinct expression of a region’s culture. Each island’s culture comes out in force during these festivals, which are filled with colorful characters from island lore. Often, a king and queen are named for the event. All Caribbean Carnival celebrations include music, and on some islands, musicians vie for competitive titles. If you’re looking for a sure way to see and hear the best the islands have to offer, Carnival is one cultural event you shouldn’t miss….they are definitely like no other festivals around the world.
- “Caribe-Expo” – In the city of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada.
- “Carifiesta” – In the city of Montreal in Quebec, Canada, typically 2–3 weeks before Toronto’s Caribana.
- “Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto” – In Toronto, Ontario, it draws close to a million visitors to the city. Formerly “Caribana”, it is known as the best Caribbean carnival outside of Trinidad and Tobago.
- “Carnival”(cancelled) – In the city of Hamilton, 1 week after Toronto’s Caribana.
- “Carifest” – In the city of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada.
- “Cariwest” – Held annually the second week of August in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Cariwest boasts an amazing display of masqueraders in the main parade, and is a beautiful festival full of food and entertainment in the heart of downtown.
Barrie’s Caribfest (parade has been cancelled since 2011) is Canada’s second largest Caribbean Carnival. It is held on the shores of Lake Simcoe in the beautiful city of Barrie. However, the activities extends throughout downtown Barrie as the costume wind its way through downtown streets, along Lakeshore Drive to Centennial Park, the location of the main stage. This dynamic, exciting event features some of the best Canadian and international Caribbean Carnival performers in music, dance, costumes, and world drumming.
One of the unique attraction that distinguishes this Caribbean Carnival is the location where it is held. People from the GTA have commented on the fact that they can jump up in the parade and at the end of the day jump in the lake to have a swim. This gives the event a unique Caribbean feel which has not been duplicated by any other Caribbean Carnival in Canada.
This dynamic, exciting event features some of the best Canadian and international Caribbean Carnival performers in music, dance, costumes, and world drumming.
Events are held from Friday to Sunday throughout every third weekend of August
- Carnaval Antillais de Colombes – every year late June.
- Carnaval Tropical de Paris – every year early July.
- Carnaval of French West Indies, about two months between the Sunday of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday
- Berlin – Karneval der Kulturen (Carnival of Cultures), every year in May (Whitsuntide weekend)
- Rotterdam – “Summer Carnival” Zomercarnaval: Occurs every year in July. Each year there are more than 800.000 visitors.
- Birmingham – “Birmingham International Carnival”
- Isle of Wight –
- Leicester – “Leicester Caribbean Carnival”
- London – “Notting Hill Carnival” – in Notting Hill located in Northwest London,
- Leeds – “Leeds West Indian Carnival” – Sometimes referred to as Chapeltown Carnival; the oldest West Indian Carnival in Europe.
- Nottingham – “Nottingham Caribbean Carnival”, at the Forest Recreation Ground in Nottingham,
- Bristol – “St Pauls Carnival”
- Preston – “Preston Caribbean Carnival” 
- Atlanta Carnival Atlanta, GA – Last weekend in May, usually falls on Memorial Day weekend
- Baltimore, MD – Baltimore Caribbean-American Festival held every July in Druid Hill Park neighborhood in Baltimore.
- Boston, MA – Last Saturday in August, Dorchester, MA
- Cambridge, MA – Cambridge Carnival International, September 12 – Held in Kendall Square
- Chicago, IL – Chicago CARIFETE, Third Saturday in August, on the Midway Plaisance in the confines of the University of Chicago Campus.
- Austin, TX – Carnaval Brasileiro, February the 3rd
- Broward/Miami Caribbean Carnival Miami, FL – The second weekend in October, Columbus Day weekend.
- Houston, TX – Usually the weekend around Fourth of July.
- Jersey City, NJ – The Fourth Saturday of July from Lincoln Park (Jersey City) parade route leading to the Festival at Exchange Place.
- Long Island, NY – Weekend after Labor Day Carnival – Held in Hempstead
- Los Angeles, CA – Hollywood Carnival, Parade of the Bands, fourth weekend of June.
- Minneapolis, MN – CARIFEST – Usually held the fourth weekend of July along West River Road right next to the Mississippi River. (www.Carifest.org)
- New Orleans, LA – In November, the bayou Bacchanal is held on the first Saturday in downtown and Armstrong Park.
- New York, NY – Labor Day Carnival – Held in Brooklyn, along Eastern Parkway, with over 2.3 million visitors annually
- Orlando, FL – This is usually held the last weekend in May, which is typically Memorial Day weekend. Most recently been held at the Citrus Bowl.
- Seattle, WA – Pioneer Square, annual Fat Tuesday celebration.
- Tacoma, WA – PLU campus Carnival, near Fat Tuesday
- Tampa, FL – Usually held the beginning of June in St. Petersburg, FL (Greater Tampa Bay Area) at Vinoy Park. Recently moved for 2011 to Raymond James Stadium.
- Norfolk,VA – Virginia CaribFest, (2nd weekend in July)
- Washington D.C. – DC Caribbean Carnival, usually between June 16–24 every year.
- Charleston Carifest, Charleston, SC – Third weekend in June (a week before DC Caribbean Carnival).
While music is a necessity during Carnival celebrations, it is also something islanders take particular pride in. Islands often host annual festivals featuring the cream of the crop in reggae, jazz, soca, and more. With so many music festivals in the region, it’s easy to find one year-round.
The Barbados Jazz Festival is one of the Caribbean’s most popular jazz festivals. Called “Paint it Jazz,” the event is generally held early in the year, around the middle of January, which is the same month a different type of crowd converges on the U.S. Virgin Islands for the St. Croix Blues and Heritage Festival. In February, travelers can enjoy Jamaican styles at the Negril Music Festival.
In May, Curaçao and St. Lucia each host jazz events. Curaçao’s KLM Jazz Festival happens early in the month, but mid-month the St. Lucia International Jazz Festival opens its doors. At the end of May, those who like jazz can also stop in at the Jazz Festival on Antigua or visit Puerto Rico for the Heineken Jazz Festival.
In June, travelers can sample something different at the St. Kitts Music Festival, but the month opens with Jamaica’s Ocho Rios Jazz Festival, and those who enjoy reggae may also want to be on the island in late July or early August for the Reggae Sumfest. Latin dance fans also have something to look forward to in July, when the Dominican Republic hosts the Merengue Festival.
Curaçao invites travelers to experience jazz again at the Curaçao Jazz Festival in early October, but those who would like to stop in the Dominican Republic can also enjoy the Annual Jazz Festival early in the month. While Jamaica kicks things off in November with the Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, Trinidad is host to the Pan Jazz Festival mid-month.
Those who like music, particularly jazz, will always find it in the Caribbean, but a music festival in these islands is a unique experience. Enjoy these events year-round across the islands.
Every island has its own local festivals. While many include Independence Day or the celebration of a ruler’s birth, there are some traditional festivals that differ among the islands. Of course, most islands host plenty of local festivals, but some of the most famous parties include the following:
- Reggae Sunsplash coincides with the Bob Marley Birthday Bash on Jamaica. These celebrations pay respect to Bob Marley, and the musical form he made popular around the globe. Fans of the genre may want to plan to spend some time on Jamaica around January 6th.
- Puerto Rico enjoys a Coffee Harvest Festival for its popular mountain brew. Take a taste of their local blend in mid-February.
- Pirates Week is a popular time to enjoy the Cayman Islands, especially for the young at heart. This celebration of pirates and the seafaring past takes place during the last week of October.
- Sailors can enjoy Antigua Sailing Week at the end of April. This popular celebration has included as many as 1,500 participants, with 5,000 onlookers watching some of the world’s top sailors.
- On the island of Barbados, the field workers celebrated the end of the growing season in July or early August, and this tradition has carried forward in the form of the Crop Over Festival, one of the best-known Caribbean Carnivals.
No matter when you’re planning a trip to the islands, you’re sure to encounter a culture with a cause for celebration. On some islands, towns each have their own local festivals and events, while on others you may find commonly celebrated Caribbean pastimes. Either way, celebrations are a fun way to round out any trip to the Caribbean.
Visit information about festivals section to explore a full list of festivals happening around the world yearly!