I missed Carnaval in San Pedro, Belize, this year.
No kids giddily slathering each other in colorful paint in Central Park.
No quirky and entertaining Comparsas song-and-dance parades.
No party in the park, La Pintadera, the last hurrah before Lent.
And no burning of Don Juan Carnaval, that fiery finale and act of atonement before that chastened trudge to Ash Wednesday and weeks of denial leading up to Easter’s resurrection and the renewal of our souls.
For all its religious roots, Carnaval is one hell of a party.
My reason for missing it all is pretty pedestrian — recovering from surgery. Carnaval is one of my favorite island celebrations, especially watching the kids, armed with squirt bottles of paint (and sometimes eggs, despite the ban) chasing each other up and down Front Street and through Central Park. So carefree and innocent and messy!
That is why I was delighted when my friend Dion from the San Pedro Sun invited me to the premiere of a little movie on Carnaval in Belize at the Paradise Theater on Wednesday.
The film is only the second in a series from the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) which focuses on Belize celebrations. The first looked at the Garifuna people’s Settlement Day celebration.
The film was made by the Institute of Social & Cultural Research, a branch of NICH, over the course of three years visiting Carnaval here in San Pedro and the more pageantry-oriented Carnaval celebrated in parts of Corozal, specifically the village of Caledonia.
The guests of honor at the premiere were students from San Pedro High School, Ambergris Caye Elementary School, San Pedro Catholic School, Holy Cross Elementary School, Isla Bonita and New Horizon. You couldn’t ask for a more appreciative audience, and not just because they were freed from scholarly duties for a morning.
No, more than a few students saw family, friends and even themselves in the film — eliciting quiet squeals of delight and recognition.
It was interesting to learn how very different the two Carnaval celebrations seem to be. The Caledonia celebration seems thicker with symbolism and religious undercurrents — the appearance of El Diablo, the dressing up as demons and priests and witches and old men, the painting of black faces, the ritual door-to-door parades.
San Pedro’s celebration of Carnaval is more of an awkward marriage of religious ritual and hedonistic abandon, staged as much for the tourist trade ans the locals. Watching the film made me realize that the organizers of Carnaval could do a great service by educating visitors, expats and locals to the underlying traditions, symbolism and roots of Carnaval.
Hey, I would sign up for Carnaval 101, wouldn’t you?
It was also a little sad to discover that what was once a celebration in every Belize village with a Catholic church — and that is probably every one — has dwindled down to just these two communities.
Belizians love to celebrate. There are holidays galore filled with colorful parades and pageantry, dancing and concerts. So it is a bit of a mystery as to why Carnaval is not more widespread.
The film does not seek the answer.
But perhaps its very existence will kindle a renewed enthusiasm around the country for Carnaval!
There are copies of the Carnaval DVD deposited at the San Pedro House of Culture on Back Street as well as a delightfully colorful and informative poster on the origins and nature of Carnaval, created in conjunction with the film. Each of the schools and the Town Council were given copies of the DVD and poster as well.