It’s Carnival Time!

Celebrating Carnival in the French and Spanish-speaking world.

As I write this, my first ever blog post, the UK is currently in its third national lockdown as a result of the Covid Pandemic. It is the start of February, Christmas seems a lifetime ago and the warmer days of spring are still a few weeks away. I am spending most of my working week teaching from behind a screen and not going much further than the local park with my two little ones. So what better time to fly away to warmer climes (if only in our imagination) and introduce our pupils to the joyful and colourful tradition of carnival!

Le carnaval in French, or el carnaval in Spanish (not forgetting carnavales, as many Spanish-speaking Central and South Americans refer to the several days of partying), is a festival which occurs before the start of the period of Lent and culminates on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). It’s a time for fun and excess, before the more sober weeks leading up to Easter when, traditionally, many people gave up foods like meat, butter and fat, as well as alcohol. Carnival is a byword for parades, street parties, music and dancing. What’s not to love? 

Whilst the Portuguese-speaking country of Brazil hosts arguably the most famous Carnival, in Rio de Jeneiro, the festival is celebrated by Francophones and Hispanohablantes the world over, with a particularly strong tradition in South America and the Caribbean. So, for those of us teaching MFL, carnival time is a wonderful opportunity to bring together language and culture in a rich and meaningful way for our pupils, even drawing in some cross-curricular elements along the way.

Here I’ve pulled together a bank of resources, both French and Spanish, which could be used to present and explore the celebration of Carnival. I’ve tried to include lots of clips and links to sites here, which would also be suitable for the remote-learning situation in which we currently find ourselves.

Explaining the origins of Carnival:

This clip gives a great three-minute overview of Carnival, from its origins in Ancient Egypt to its current place in the cultural calendar of many countries around the world.

This, very interesting article, is a great place for teachers to get up to speed on the traditions of Carnival the Caribbean, in particular thinking about how this European tradition has combined with the customs of freed slaves of African origin to create the amazing festival we know today. It’s up to you how far you delve into the history of slavery and emancipation in the region, but it is certainly key to the evolution of Carnival on these islands, and in South America too.

These fabulously colourful National Geographic documents explain a little about the different Carnival traditions in various parts of the world, including Mexico.

For more advanced French learners, this ‘1 jour 1 question’ clip gives a brief explanation of the origins of Carnival (in very rapid French, it must be added), from its roots in the Ancient World to its various current forms.

What does Carnival look like?

Here is another great website, which has some wonderful images that could be used as a lesson resource, and explains all about the origins and traditions of France’s largest and most important carnival: Le Carnaval de Nice. Famous in France, and around the world, this Carnival boasts ‘flower battles’, when over 100,00 flowers are thrown from floats moving down the famous Promenade des Anglais, and the Carnival King, Triboulet, who is burned on the last night of the festivities.

This sweet video narrated by an index finger (stay with me), explains all about the tradition of Carnival in Spain. It’s all in Spanish so might need some translation for younger learners.

Another brilliant site for some vibrant images is this one, which shows Carnival celebrations in the Canary Islands, Spain. The costumes on display, particularly those of the carnival queens, are absolutely magnificent! Did you know that carnival festivities in the Canary Islands end with the burying of a giant sardine? If you want to find out more, then this is the place.

This great, but fairly long clip shows the energy and excitement of the Carnaval de Saint-Anne on the island of Guadeloupe. Here is wonderful opportunity to bring in some geography links, giving children time to work with atlases or Google Earth to find this tiny French-speaking island. It’s also interesting to discuss why this island is actually officially part of France. At the start of the clip, children might be able to spot the character of Vaval, le roi du carnaval (the King of the Carnival), whose effigy is burned on the last night of the festivities.

It seems unlikely that the small mining town of El Callao in the East of Venezuela could host the country’s largest Carnival party, but it does! Here, the processions are led by the incredible madamas, ladies dressed in traditional African headscarves and wearing colourful clothes. Due to the town’s mining history, it is melting pot of cultures and its people have drawn inspiration from Africa, Trinidad and other parts of the Caribbean to create a UNESCO-recognised celebration like no other, all set to the sound of calypso.

Children might be interested to find out about Mardi Gras as it is celebrated in New Orleans, in the Southern USA, which used to belong to France. The tradition of eating ‘King Cake’, which children may be able to link to their learning about la galette des rois, in French, or the Spanish roscón de reyes, will be of particular interest and this catchy little song, which explains what is hidden inside, is sure to be a hit.

When we think of Carnival we usually think of sunshine and samba, but don’t forget that Carnival is also celebrated in much colder climes. Le Carnaval de Québec, in French speaking Canada, is the third largest Carnival celebration in the world. This clip is good for teachers who want to know more about the festivities.

This high-energy montage is perfect for young learners and shows all the fun (and sometimes dangerous-looking) activities that take place there.

What sorts of activities could children do?

Samba, a high-energy dance style combining complex drum beats, brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans, with Portuguese language lyrics, is the dance of carnival. Originating in Brazil but exported all over the world, this is music to dance to! Anyone who’s watched Strictly Come Dancing will know that samba moves are notoriously hard to pull off but perhaps the children might like to try their hand at this simplified.

For musically-minded pupils, who want to find out more about the samba style, this lovely clip about Jonas, a samba band drummer from Rio, could be of interest. Narrated in Portuguese, with some English, children learning Spanish might be surprised to hear words that they understand, due to the close relationship between the two languages.

The ELIMU Carnival Band, a UK-based group, have created some fantastic plans and resources for D&T projects based around Carnival, from masks to lanterns and musical instruments. My favourite is a wonderful set of lessons on creating carnival headdresses, which I have used very successfully in the past.

Some variation of doughnuts (les beignets) are a staple of carnival cuisine everywhere from mainland France to the Southern USA and all over the Caribbean. This delicious recipe for carnival doughnuts comes from the French-speaking island of Martinique and includes the spices cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla, as well as lime, for a tropical hit. Making these tasty treats does involve using hot oil, however, so children will need to be closely supervised at all times.  

And finally, This great little site, all in French, is full of craft ideas, recipes and information about the tradition of Carnival in France.

Do you have any go-to resources for teaching Carnival to young learners? Or did you take inspiration from any of these? Let me know how you use them.

Bon carnaval! ¡Feliz carnaval!

2 thoughts on “It’s Carnival Time!

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