You’ve more than likely heard that in Tenerife we celebrate the second-largest carnival in the world but, do you really know what it is that makes the Santa Cruz Carnival so special? More than just a simple party, carnival is a sentiment, a feeling that manages to bring out the more cheerful, optimistic side of the people, who, each year, put their imagination and creativity to the test by trying to create the most original costume. Join us as we go through all the key dates and most important elements that go into making the most colourful party of the year!
Where and when?
The best carnival in the whole of Spain takes place every year right here in Santa Cruz. Weeks later you’ll find smaller carnivals being celebrated in different towns across the island, such as Los Cristianos or Los Gigantes, to name just a couple.
There are two very different sides to the events: the “official” carnival and the one that is lived in the streets. During the official one, music groups made up of around 50 people play an important role, including things known as murgas and comparsas (we’ll explain all about them later). The street carnival takes place right in the centre of Santa Cruz and it’s the citizens who make it so special, enjoying the celebrations to the full in their original fancy dress costumes. They also spend the whole night (and sometimes also the day) dancing to the sound of local orchestras and more mainstream music that can be heard in the different stands that completely take over the capital’s streets.
The most common date for carnival is the end of February, but the exact days depend on when Easter falls each year. The main celebration days are linked to the Catholic calendar and go way back to the days of the ancient Roman Empire. It was decided that Easter Sunday would be the Sunday following the first full moon of spring, which means that both Easter and carnival have different dates every year. Carnival officially ends on Ash Wednesday, the day immediately after Shove Tuesday (Pancake Day!) that marks the beginning of lent, a period of abstinence from things typically including alcohol or chocolate in the weeks leading up to Palm Sunday. In Tenerife, however, we carry on partying for a few days more after Ash Wednesday. Why stop when everyone’s having so much fun?!
This year, carnival Tuesday falls on February 28th, with its traditional parade known as the “coso”, that starts during the afternoon. The official start of the carnival period was the 27th of January, and it’s during these first weeks when the different phases of the Concurso de Murgas (Murgas competition) take place, including both adult and junior categories. (We’re getting to the bit about Murgas…)
Since 1987, every year the Santa Cruz Carnival has a different theme, which have varied from “Space” to “The Glorious 1920s”. To fully immerse visitors in a world of pure fantasy, the streets of Tenerife’s capital is decorated according to the chosen theme that year. For example, in 1990, the Plaza de España had a special fairy-tale feel to it, divided into two areas: one was the positive side, with a small, happy-looking house, and the other was the gloomy negative side, representing the theme “The world of fairy-tales”. “The Glorious 1920s” was a total hit in 2002, with modern motifs typical of the first two decades of the 20th Century scattered all around the city. Visitors saw a large Eiffel Tower as well as a Statue of Liberty sculpture and a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge. Another popular year was 1997 with the theme “Prehistory”. Last year, the city was invaded by people dressed in the neon clothes of the 1980s, the same way this year we’ll see a clear bias towards Caribbean costumes and exotic fruit, to reflect this year’s theme.
Something that’s also very much awaited each year is the release of the Promotional Poster. Since 1962 there’s been a different edition each year, leading to a prestigious collection that includes work from artists such as César Manrique, Mel Ramos or Maribel Nazco. These posters have contributed to the intercultural and artistic greatness of the Santa Cruz Carnival. This year, the person in charge of designing the poster is the Canarian artist Pepe Damaso, who opted for a mixed technique that combines elements of Tenerife’s landscape, such as Teide with other tropical images inspired by Caribbean geography. As per usual, the poster has sparked controversy, with opinions both in favour and against it.
Long live the Queen!
On the Wednesday before carnival’s first party weekend, the Carnival Queen is elected. During what’s known as the Gran Gala, which is broadcast across Spain on television, a jury of eight members that includes politicians and other local celebrities and figures of authority, will watch the contenders showcase their amazing dresses to decide who will be crowned this year’s queen.
What’s really astonishing is the fact that some of the dresses weigh up to 200 kilos, needing to be taken around on wheels!
The cost of the creations is very high, that’s why it’s really common that each contender has a sponsor. Once the runner ups are chosen, the mayor hands the sceptre to the new queen, who will have the task of representing the Carnival of Santa Cruz in the different tourism fairs. Since 1975, a junior queen is also chosen and, since 1985, a senior one too.
The Announcing Parade
Those who attend the Santa Cruz Carnival on the first Friday can enjoy the legendary Announcing Parade, in which all many groups taking part in the carnival travel the length and breadth of the city “announcing” that the event has finally arrived. The queen and runner ups travel around on their own carriage, surrounded by what’s known as the comparsas (troupes of singers, musicians and dancers) and murgas. For over four hours you’ll be able to enjoy a fantastic no-holds-barred procession to the sound of vibrant Latin beats. If you feel like continuing the party (and have the energy to), follow the crowds and participate in the official starting celebrations of the street carnival. Costumes are a must!
The famous “Murgas”
One of the most special and unique elements of the Santa Cruz Carnival is the murgas contest. In order to appreciate how important this is for the locals, you first need to understand exactly what murgas are. The idea of a murga originated in Spain, in Cadiz to be exact, and the first time we saw them in Tenerife was during the 1917 Carnival. Nowadays they’re found throughout several Latin American countries, including Uruguay, Chile and Argentina. A murga is basically a band made up of people using pretty basic instruments, such as cymbals and drums, which uses carefully chosen and humorous lyrics to criticise social and political situations that have occurred over the past year (they’ll have plenty of material to use this year). The murgas contest has been held every year since 1961, and though largely made up of all-male groups, there are also female murga contests since 1972 and the murgas infantiles (children’s murgas competitions) since 1975.
Ash Wednesday and the Burial of the Sardine
During the first day of Lent the curious “Burial of the Sardine is celebrated, an act which sees the streets packed with spectators once again, only this time in mourning. This rather bizarre but fascinating ceremony, held in various parts of Spain, marks the official end of the carnival celebrations. Dressed in black and with great sorrow, groups of people gather to accompany some symbolic figure on its way to being burned. In Tenerife, and as a general rule, that figure is a giant sardine, made from cardboard and paper mache. With this act, the past is symbolically buried, so that the future can be reborn with even greater force, returning things to their “natural state” and inviting the public to take part in a collective reflection. Historically the idea was to “bury” all our vices in preparation for Lent, a time of quiet austerity. As the sardine makes its way through the streets, it’s very common to hear desperate cries from grieving “widows”, lamenting the death of their beloved sardine.
Saturday and Piñata Sunday
This marks the closing weekend, when people bid a fond farewell to “Don Carnal” (Mr Carnival) until the following year. In addition to the typical nightime parties held throughout the streets of the capital, over the past few years the popularity of the Daytime Carnival (Carnaval de Día) has grown dramatically. Now not only children and families put people of all ages go along to squeeze as much enjoyment as possible out of the last remaining hours of the carnival celebrations. There are also several live musical performances that take place in various spots around the centre. During the so-called “piñata” Sunday there’s a traditional performance by the Afilarmónica NiFú-NiFá murga group in the Plaza del Príncipe, and celebrations are finished off by a spectacular firework display at 21:00.
Right, now you’ve got all the information, all you need to do is find yourself a costume and get yourself mentally prepared for the party of the year!