Santa Cruz de Tenerife Carnival: a spectacular display of colours

Carnival in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, well-known around the world, has become one of the most popular celebrations in Spain.

Carnival in Tenerife has a very old and well-documented history. As is also the case with the Carnival in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, there is information about the event practically since the time of colonization. The earliest written sources about the history of the Carnival in Tenerife, dating from the 18th century, mention dances and masks. In the 19th century, there is record of the first rondalla in Santa Cruz de Tenerife: the Choir of Santa Cruz. Carnival in Tenerife has a unique history rooted in the popularity and reputation that it acquired in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the 20th century, the town was able to get around the nationwide ban on Carnival celebrations under the dictatorships of generals Primo de Rivera and Franco. Alongside Cádiz, Bielsa, and a few other very small towns, Santa Cruz de Tenerife was one of a small number of places that continued to celebrate Carnival. In order to do so, the organizers had to make some minor changes to the program, using the name “Winter Festival” instead of Carnival.

Old picture of the carnival parade of Santa Cruz de Tenerife
Old picture of the carnival parade of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

Today, Tenerife has the second most well-known Carnival celebration in the world, surpassed only by Río de Janeiro. The celebration is attended by hundreds of thousands of people from five continents. In 1980, Tenerife’s Carnival was named a Festival of International Touristic Interest, and in 2000 the city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife was designated the World Capital of Carnival.

This grandiose festival can be said to start on the Wednesday before Carnival weekend, since that is when the Queen of Carnival Pageant takes place. However, with a variety of festivities and contests including street music performances, comparsas (troupes), and the selection of the junior and senior queens, the Carnival atmosphere descends on the city several weeks before the festival officially arrives.

The Queen of Carnival Pageant is a fundamental event in Tenerife’s Carnival which draws a massive audience, even being broadcast via satellite for viewers in the most secluded parts of the world. The pageant is judged by a panel which selects one woman to be the representative of Carnival for an entire year. The winner receives a scepter from the mayor as a symbol of her victory. The spectacle revolves around the contestants’ elaborate dresses, known as “fantasías” (“fantasies”), which can weigh up to 200 kilograms.

The next event of Carnival in Tenerife takes place that same Friday: the Great Inaugural Cavalcade, a huge parade of horses accompanied by batucada music (in cultures with African roots, this refers to music played by a group of percussionists). The Queen, her court, and an endless number of groups and organizations like the murgas (bands of street performers) participate in the parade, wandering the streets of the city for hours with their floats and costumes. The cavalcade announces the official start of Carnival, and when the route is finished they disperse and take to the streets to get the party started.

Carnival parade in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, 2013
Carnival parade in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, 2013.

The Inaugural Cavalcade of Carnival in Tenerife kicks off a weekend full of partying. Saturday is known as Dancing Day. Around the entire city, tents and stages are set up for live music performances. Sunday is proclaimed Carnaval de Día (“Daytime Carnival”), ensuring that the festival isn’t just for nocturnal partiers so that families and people of all ages can come out with their costumes and join the celebration at night as well as during the day.

On Monday and Tuesday, the festivities continue with various events and concerts that take place throughout the city. Tuesday is the official last day of Carnival, closed out by the Gran Coso Apoteósis, another colossal parade, this time geared towards tourists from Spain and abroad.

On Ash Wednesday, the traditional Burial of the Sardine takes place. The whole city dresses like they are in mourning with black ribbons while a massive funeral procession consisting of people dressed as widows, nuns, bishops, and popes tearfully accompany an enormous sardine in a ceremony that (nominally) marks the end of the festival.

With the Burial of the Sardine, Carnival in Tenerife is over, and it’s time to return to everyday life. However, many feel that this is too short, so that weekend Carnival takes its final breaths with the “Piñata” celebration on Saturday and Sunday. During the weekend, the concerts and performances start up again throughout the city. There is another Daytime Carnival as well as exhibits including an old car show. On Sunday night, the closing ceremonies take place, this time ending one of Spain’s greatest festivals for good. Carnival is sent off with the burning of an enormous pyrotechnic castle that ascends into the night, bringing Don Carnal with it, not to return until the next year.

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