Depending on whom you ask, the word "carnival" can have different meanings in February. For some, it's the travelling variety with cotton candy, roller coasters and Ferris wheels. For others, the word is tied to the holiday known for floats that rival the kind seen during U.S. Thanksgiving parades, colours and confetti that give New Year's Eve a run for its money and costumes that make Halloween look like an ordinary school night.
But aside from the glitz and glamour, there's a religious component tied to many (but not all) Carnival celebrations. For the world's largest Carnival celebrations — Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Rio Carnival in Rio de Janeiro — the festivities go back to the religious observance of Lent, a ritual for many Catholics who give up a luxury in the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday. Historically, this meant that pretty much all of the fun stuff — like booze and rich meats — had to be consumed before Lent or what's known as Ash Wednesday. And what better way is there to consume good food and drinks than with one massive party?
But Carnival isn't restricted to countries with Catholic roots like Italy, Spain and Portugal. Years of immigration and European colonization have also helped spread the festival to countries like India and Japan and the many islands of the Caribbean. It's also left the neighbouring European countries, like Switzerland, which has a large Protestant population, to adopt the fun for their own religious celebrations.
Check out some of the lesser-known Carnival celebrations around the world in the gallery below. Slideshow text follows for mobile readers below the gallery.
Winter Carnival, Quebec City, Canada
Its roots date back to the first era of Quebec's French-Catholic settlers who came to "New France" to make a better life for themselves. But despite carrying the "Carnival" moniker and taking place in February, that's pretty much where the similarities end. Instead, in 1894, the people of Quebec City reinvented the celebration as a way to boost Quebecers' morale during long winters that were historically filled with global and economic hardship, according to the festival's official website. Nowadays, it marks one of Quebec City's most popular winter attractions for tourists.
Nice Carnival, Nice, France
It's no surprise that France would celebrate Carnival, given that over 80 per cent of the country's population identifies with Catholicism. But the question is a matter of, where do you host the parties? Enter Nice, France, home to one of the country's largest Carnival celebrations (France's capital of Paris plays host to the other one). The 13-day celebration, which runs from Feb. 15 to Mar. 6 this year, dates back as far as 1294, when the Count of Provence, Charles d'Anjou, a high-ranking member of France's monarchy, spent "the joyous days of Carnival" in Nice. The city also gave birth to the use of "Abbés des Fous," or Fool's Abbots, people entrusted by the Church to make sure the fun never got too out of control. Today, the influence of the Fool's Abbots can be seen in the jester costumes and caricature-like designs in the floats.
Notting Hill Carnival, London, United Kingdom
While most carnivals take place in between February and March, London's Notting Hill Carnival takes place in August in, you guessed it, the streets of Notting Hill. The three-day carnival brings out the vibrant and over-the-top costumes traditionally used in Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean, as well as tons of West Indian food and music. There are some loose ties to the Caribbean Carnivals in the early 19th century, but the main cause for celebration is the abolition of slavery and the slave trade by the country's Afro-Caribbean community in 1964.
Fasnacht, Basel, Switzerland
For the non-Catholic traveller looking for Carnival celebrations, head to the city of Basel in Switzerland. The festival starts on the Monday after Ash Wednesday, at exactly 4 am, due to a possible holdover from the Reformation. However, it still features the costumes, dancing, floats, partying and confetti found in its Catholic counterpart.
Asakusa Samba Carnival, Tokyo Japan
Tokyo, Japan may seem like an unlikely place for a Carnival, but thanks to international influence of Samba, a dance with strong Latin roots, other facets of Carnival come to the Asakusa neighbourhood of Japan capital. The festival is modelled after Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, and brings in samba teams from across the country and Brazil — as well as their colourful costumes — to compete for cash prizes.
Carnival Goa, Goa, India
Goa may be renowned for its beaches, but a Carnival festival? Well, festival-goers can thank the Portuguese for the party, according to the Carnival Goa's website. When Portuguese rulers came to Goa and established a colony 500 years ago , they brought with them their Catholic holidays of Lent and Carnival. Nowadays, the religious roots to Catholicism may be lost amidst the coloured costumes, floats and dancing, but the spirit of fun is still very much front and centre for three to four days every year.
Maslenitsa, Moscow, Russia
Maslenitsa may not have Carnival in its name, but the similarities are there. The Eastern Slavic holiday coincides with the week leading up to Lent and features the same traditions of giving up luxuries such as meat. Now, while Russia's climate is a little too chilly for the festive outfits found in Carnival celebrations like Brazil, it features other traditions such as feasting on pancakes and a massive bonfire.