The carnival season is approaching and Cayman will celebrate its own with Batabano in May. Not only is Batabano a fun event for Cayman’s residents, it helps draw tourists to Cayman’s shores, bolstering our tourism industry. However, most people only have a vague idea of the origins and significance of this wonderful celebration of life.
The meaning of carnival is thought to be “farewell to meat” stemming from the Catholic practice of abstaining from red meat from Ash Wednesday until Easter. This pre-Lenten tradition was adopted by slaves brought to Trinidad, Dominica, Haiti, Martinique and other islands.
In the Cayman Islands, Batabano is one of the youngest carnival celebrations in the Caribbean, introduced in 1983 by the Rotary Club of Grand Cayman. It celebrates African history in the Caribbean, as well as the success of Caymanians.
The word Batabano signifies the tracks that local sea turtles leave in the sand when they move from their nests to the beach – a term some believe was chosen to represent the growth of the Cayman Islands over generations.
It is generally accepted that carnival was originally a Greek spring festival which the Romans adopted with a feast in honour of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and the god Saturn, calling it Saturnalia.
On this day masters and slaves exchanged clothes amidst drunken revelry. The Roman Catholic church later modified the feast of Saturnalia into a festival preceding the beginning of Lent which is why most countries in the Caribbean have their carnivals in February. However, what evolved is a mass celebration of indulgences in music, dance, food, and drink, something which the church did not have in mind.
Trinidad has the biggest carnival in the region mainly because in the 18th century there was already a number of free black people there who were mixing with European immigrants and settlers. Carnival evolved there from a European celebration to have a more Caribbean flavour. By the time slavery was abolished in 1834 the Trinidadians were able to express themselves completely through music, dance and costumes. Only the Brazilian carnival is greater in size now, although the Trinis believe that quality trumps quantity every time.
Carnival celebrations spread around the region and each country customised their versions. Some carnivals have moved off the Easter calendar so as not to clash with others.
Indeed, staging carnivals has become so popular that it is now possible to travel the world throughout the year to jump up virtually every weekend. The Notting Hill carnival in west London, was created by Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian, to bring communities together after race riots in 1959. It is now Europe’s biggest carnival with more than one million attending the two-day event.
Carnival looks and seems a simple affair but it has actually evolved from a complex mix of history, cultures, traditions and spirituality and is likely to endure forever.