Carnival, a forbidden party

One of the most widespread theories about the origin of carnivals is related to the Roman Saturnalia and Lupercalia festivals. Both are in honor of the god Bacchus, divinity of wine. The Christian culture incorporated these celebrations to its calendar and, since then, every year, they precede the Christian Lent.

Although each carnival is different depending on the country and even the locality, they all have common characteristics: costumes, parades, dances and lots of partying. Throughout history, the carnival has also been a space for satire of power, which has made kings, clergymen and leaders uncomfortable. That is why this festival has been banned on more than one occasion or some of its costumes or activities have been censored under penalties of imprisonment or physical punishment.

One hundred public floggings for wearing a costume

Alberto Ramos Santana notes in his book El Carnaval secuestrado (“the kidnapped carnival”) ‘the fate of the municipal restrictions ran even with the religious ones’. Thus, according to this same work, in 1767 Cádiz citizens were not allowed to enter the dances dressed as ecclesiastics and men could not dress as women or women as men. ‘If they were found like that they would be taken to jail,’ the author notes. Even so, disregarding such rules seems to have been the custom in both the 17th and 18th centuries.

Le Carnaval de Cassel carnival

Painting Le Carnaval de Cassel by Alexis Bafcop. | Wikimedia

According to an Aragonese magazine, as early as 1521 there existed in Zaragoza a rule regulating the use of costumes and masks. Two years later, Charles I enacted a law covering all its territories, according to which masks and costumes were censored under a penalty that varied according to the social scale of the ‘criminal’. ‘If he was of humble extraction, a hundred public floggings were enough, if he was a nobleman, banishment was imposed for a period of six months’, the newspaper points out.

Likewise, between the 19th and 20th centuries, carnivals were also tried to be controlled in the peninsula by means of clean-up campaigns or with a greater control of the festivities. However, these ‘campaigns of refinement’ only served to add fuel to the popular revelry, since they became the targets of the mockery of the citizens, at least according to the aforementioned Alberto Ramos in his work.

The prohibition of Carnival during Franco’s regime

In 1937, with Spain in the middle of the civil war, the General Government of the rebel Army, and with carnivals just around the corner, issued a Circular Order prohibiting the celebration of carnivals. Thus, it was alleged that the country was in ‘moments that advise a withdrawal in the externalization of internal joys, which are not compatible with the life of sacrifices that we must lead’. It seemed that once the conflict was over, carnivals would be celebrated normally again.

However, with the end of the war and the advent of a new carnival, the Official State Bulletin published a new order signed by Serrano Súñer, brother-in-law of the dictator Francisco Franco. Published on January 13, 1940, the writing indicated the following: ‘Suspended in previous years the so called Carnival celebrations, and not existing reasons that advise to rectify this decision, this Ministry has resolved to maintain it and to remember to all the dependent authorities of him, the absolute prohibition of the celebration of such celebrations‘. In addition, according to an article about the Carnival of Cádiz, by Ignacio Sacaluga, ‘the civil governor of the province, Manuel Mora Figueroa, sent a telegram to the municipalities reminding them of the obligation to keep the Carnival prohibited’.

The ‘winter festivities’

Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

Picture of the Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. | Shutterstock

The veto was maintained until the arrival of the Transition, although it is true that the regime, with time, became more tolerant with respect to these festivities. Thus, private celebrations were allowed, where the Francoist authorities could better control what happened, or some permits were granted. It should also be noted that, despite the prohibition, carnivals never stopped existing. In 1978, before the legal return of these festivities, the Spanish newspaper El País pointed out that ‘in spite of the government prohibition, they continued celebrating their adulterated carnival, where the mask was called a disguise and the Carnival was called winter festivities’.

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