The Haitian Carnival

Haiti Carnival Celebration

This is a standard map of Haiti showing cities, boundaries, and other special features.



The Carnival in Haiti is just one celebration in one country of a world where Carnival is globally celebrated. The celebration derives its tradition and meaning from ancient pre-Christian practices and beliefs. Superficially, Carnival consists of a great deal of song, dance, and costume production, but the true meaning of Carnival lies in its ability to let people express themselves, their beliefs, and their creativity among both their local peers and their peers worldwide.



A picture of the celebration.

An example of some of the costumes worn at Carnival.


The Carnival celebration in Haiti is a time of art, song, dance, and costume that has many observable features and symbolic meanings. During this annual celebration before Lent, residents of Haiti take to the streets with striking costumes and dance during the parades. The Carnival in Haiti is appears to be a time of song and dance, but when analyzed anthropologically, Carnival is a time or self-expression and creativity which helps to unite people of the world with the same beliefs.


Context of Haiti

The Republic of Haiti is an area of land consisting of 10,614 sq. miles located in the Caribbean Sea (The World Factbook). Haiti 's neighboring country to the east is the Dominican Republic which shares the same island, Hispaniola . Much of Haitian land is mountainous with warm and moist costal areas. The capital is Port-au-Prince which is home to 1,838,000 people (The World Factbook). Jean-Baptiste is the president of the republic government and industries range from sugar refining to textiles and cement (Early History of Haiti).

Haiti was originally settled in approximately 450 A.D. by migrants from North America known as the Ciboneys (Early History of Haiti). Later in 900 A.D. migrants from the Amazon valley arrived in Haiti (Early History of Haiti). These are the two main groups that populated Haiti for many years but there were also small groups of people from different areas in the Caribbean as well as South America . These early inhabitants cultivated corn, wove cotton and baskets, made pottery, and carved furniture. In the 1500s, Haiti fell under Spanish rule (Early History of Haiti). Around 1630, French and British buccaneers gained control of the western third of the island which would become Haiti (Early History of Haiti). The French ruled the island and maintained a strong economy consisting of sugar, coffee, cotton, etc. This economy was so successful because of the use of slaves that the French captured from surrounding Caribbean areas. Eventually the Haitian revolution occurred and a leader of African descent began to control the Republic of Haiti as we now know it today (Early History of Haiti).

The Carnival Celebration happens during the Carnival season which is traditionally the two weeks prior to Lent, the Christian fast (Milne; 1965, pp. 40). The Carnival celebration is a time of gluttony for all who participate. The origin of the celebration comes from the need to use up an food that still remains before Lent so that it will not go bad (Encyclopedia: Carnival). People in Haiti have an elaborate time of partying as they wear exotic costumes. Examples of costumes and people celebrating in the streets of Port-au-Prince can be seen in Figures 2 and 3 above.


Origins of Carnival

“The Roman Catholic Church adapted the pagan ritual as a pre-Lenten festival, and the Spanish brought it to the New World ” (Dorson; 1982 , pp. 38). “ Its [Carnival's] predecessors were parties called “bacanales” in honor to Baco, the God of wine and “saturnalias” to honor Satur, the God of sowing and growing and also of the parties which are celebrated in Greece and Rome in the spring and in the new year” (The Early History of Carnival). The origin of the word Carnival comes from the Catholic religion in Italy . Members of this religion began a tradition which happened before the first day of Lent meaning “springtime”. Because Lent is time of conservatism, fasting, and the abandonment of gluttony, the Catholics saw it fit to gorge themselves with food and partake in a wild costume festival. They called this festival Carnevale meaning “to put away the meat.” The Carnival celebration then spread to other parts of Europe including France , Portugal , and Spain . As these countries began to gain control of America , the Caribbean , and other parts of the world, they spread this celebratory carnival. Carnival, also known as Mardi Gras which means “Fat Tuesday” in French has been a tradition since the 4 th century for the Christian world (Nunley; 1988, pp. 1).



The Carnival in Haiti as well as the rest of the world has many observable elements which make it recognizable even to those who are not very familiar with it. These elements range from costumes to floats to the steel bands and the music they create. “In order to put a carnival band together, it takes many weeks of welding; sewing; gluing; applying feathers, sequins, foil papers, glitter and lots of creativity, energy, and patience,” (Nunley; 1988, pp. 147). Nunley also writes, “All this creative activity takes place in what are referred to in the Caribbean as “mas camps,” where teamwork and organization are crucial to creating an award-winning production.” Costumes are very large and often take a great deal of time to make. Costumes are made often times by bending wire into shapes and then covering with paper mache, or foam. It is also important for these costumes to be study enough to withstand many hours of parade and dance. Creative masks accompany these full body costumes. “Masks transform not only the physical appearance but also the psychic personality of the masquerador (Dorson; 1982, pp. 39). Music is made from instruments made out of oil drums, which are called steel pans. These steel bands often have more than one hundred members who practice for many months for the celebration. Dancing is done by the majority of those that participate. Dressed in exotic costumes, men and women from all areas dance together passionately in the streets as the parade goes on. These are some of the observable elements of Carnival that bring vivacious life to the streets of Haiti (Nunley; 1988, pp. 1).



This is a 13.5 inch painted paper mache mask of a tiger from the Haitian Carnival. This picture was taken from the website




Prognosis for Carnival

Haiti is known for its exciting Carnivals that are maintaining modern popularity in comparison with Carnival celebrations in other Caribbean countries (Milne; 1965, pp. 40). Carnival is not only maintaining its presence in Haiti , but is spreading to the rest of the modern world such as New York City , Toronto , and London . Between 1955 and 1962 some 201,540 immigrants “broke out” from the Caribbean and headed towards Britain (Nunley, Bettelheim; 1988, pp. 19). Evidence suggests that while Carnival may be slowly dieing in some Caribbean Nations because of political force and organization, it seems to remain quite prevalent in Haiti .



The Carnival in Haiti represents a worldwide celebration stemming from history of the Christian fast traditionally occurring two weeks before Lent. This historical celebration offers many people throughout the world a tool for self-expression and a means of religious cultural experience. In Haiti and in each other niche of the world where carnival is celebrated, it brings religious value as a tool to unite the world.


Internet References Cited

  • Haiti, The World Factbook on the CIA website. Last updated November 30, 2004

    The CIA World Factbook website is maintained by the CIA and is updated periodically throughout the year. It may be copied freely without the permission of the CIA.

  • The Early History of Haiti .

    This web site is a non-commercial, non-profit site developed solely for educational purposes by The Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University .

  • What is Carnival? April 16th, 2004.   

    This website is maintained by All Ah We, a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to promoting the rich cultural heritage of the Caribbean.

  • Masks from around the World .

    This website is maintained by Bob Ibold, a graphic designer who has a collection of over 200 masks from around the world that he collects at artifact shows.


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

  • Watrous, Peter. At Carnival, a Homecoming for HaitiansNew York Times.    Sec C; pp. 19. 1997.
  • Milne, Jean. Fiesta Time in Latin America . The Ward Ritchie Press. 1965.
  • Averill, Gage. A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti . Chicago Press. 1997.
  • Nunley, John W. and Judith Bettelheim, Caribbean Festival Arts . The University of Washington Press, Seattle. 1988.
  • Dorson, Richard M. Material Components in Celebration. In Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual. Victor Turner, ed, pp. 33-57. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington. 1982.
  • Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner. Religious Celebrations. In Celebration: Studies in Festivity an d Ritual. Victor Turner, ed, pp. 201-219. 1982.


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