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Carnival celebrations, held just before Lent, have religious origins and feature traditions drawn from the pre-Christian festivals Bacanales and Saturnales of ancient Rome. Today however, the Carnival festival has become a pagan celebration which often offers participants the chance to briefly escape their everyday problems and add a touch of optimism to their lives.

There are two cities that must be mentioned when talking about Carnival festivals in Spain: Cadiz and Santa Cruz de Tenerife.


Italian Carnival festivals originally served as the source of inspiration for Carnival in Cadiz. The reason can be traced back to the 15th century, when Italians began making a strong presence in Cadiz, a time when Genoese merchants began settling in the city as the Turks advanced across the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Traditional Carnival features such as masks, streamers and confetti all attest to the Italian origins of the festival in Cadiz.

Records of the celebrations date back to the 16th century, which include advice to clergy on proper behavior during carnival time. Documents have been found from the 17th and 18th centuries that indicate an unsuccessful attempt was made to control and put an end to Carnival festivities. By the end of the 19th century, the English traveler Henry Swinburne recorded his impression of the Cadiz Carnival.

In the 19th century, authorities continued their attempts to control the festival, unable again to do so. In 1861, the city’s town hall designated a budget for the first time for the organization and celebration of the Carnival festival, a state sponsorship that continues today. In 1884, an attempt to censor and control the texts of lyrical content that musical groups sang during Carnival has left us with a record that gives us a chance to know the song lyrics sung for the festival from that year to present.

The period between 1920 and 1936 marks a maturing time in the history of the Cadiz Carnival, when music ensembles that perform during the Cadiz Carnival were defined by the different groupings and their features which are still present today: Chirigotascomparsas, coros and cuartetos.

From 1937 until 1947, the Cadiz Carnival experienced a period of secrecy, as the festival was formally banned by authorities of the Franco regime. In 1947 however, a tragic event revitalized Carnival festivities: an army explosives storehouse, the San Severiano Warehouse, exploded, leaving 150 people dead, some 2,000 injured and damaging 2,000 homes in the city. The tragedy cast a general feeling of sadness over a city characterized by joyfulness. As the saying goes, “no hay mal que por bien no venga” (roughly equivalent to “April showers bring May flowers”), the event lead the civil governor to decide to allow the revival of Carnival festivities under the name Fiestas Típicas Gaditanas (Traditional Cadiz festivities). Until 1976, these festivities were celebrated on different dates than Carnival is usually celebrated on.

When Spain became a democratic country on February 15, 1977, the first Carnival festival was celebrated in freedom. This festival is not only still enormously successful in Cadiz, but also throughout Andalusia, where the festival’s music competitions are televised live each year.


A bit farther south, in the Canary Islands, the Santa Cruz de Tenerife Carnival festival is a reflection of the cultural link in the Canary Islands that bridges the Americas and Europe. The Tenerife Carnival festival was declared a Festival of International Tourist Interest by the Minister of Tourism. This is one of the most important Carnival festivals in the world; its importance was confirmed in the year 2000 when Santa Cruz de Tenerife was named the Carnival Capital of the World. Procedures are nearly finished for UNESCO to declare the inclusion of the Tenerife Carnival festival on their world heritage listing.

The origins of the Tenerife Carnival festival date back to the 17th century when the first Spanish settlements were established there. The festival has been celebrated ever since, and was known during Franco’s dictatorship by the euphemistic name Winter Festival.

In 1987, the singer Celia Cruz performed at the festival. 250,000 people gathered for the event, which was recorded as a Guiness world record for number of people at a concert.

The Tenerife Carnival festival has some special features, likely due to the mild climate that allows the large crowds of revelers to enjoy celebrations outdoors. One of the most exciting moments during the festival is the election ceremony of the carnival queen, which happens before the festivities. A group of hopefuls compete for the royal scepter decked out in spectacular (and enormous) costumes called Fantasías. More than 20,000 people gather each year for the election, the tickets for which inevitably sellout in minutes.

In 1987, the festival began choosing a theme each year for the event. The theme this year is “Rome”.

The parade takes place on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Thousands of people participate, dressed in costumes and following choreographies that are televised throughout Spain and the Americas on different stations.

Although Carnival festivities in Spain traditionally end with the Entierro de la Sardina (Funeral of the Sardine) on Ash Wednesday, in Santa Cruz de Tenerife celebrations continue until the following weekend. Named “Carnaval de día” (daytime carnival), the celebrations attract entire families from all over the island to the capital city.

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