What Carnival meant and means?

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By Hilroy A. Willett

Having been either born or raised during the era at the start of Antigua’s Carnival over some 60 years ago and having been a participant in this event during that time, it is easy to imagine what carnival meant then. Apart from Christmas, carnival was the other social festival of national interest and importance. Whether it was to commemorate the Emancipation or for other reasons a summer festival, all we know then that August Monday and Tuesday were calendar days eagerly looked forward to.

The period that is the weeks and months before the carnival season was so significant that preparing for the event was anticipative and full of anxiety. As children then, one’s participation depended heavily on parents who would have many reasons for allowing or not allowing their children to ‘go to carnival’. First and foremost was that of their own participation, since without them going, then certainly not the children by themselves. Very often, a parent going to carnival would depend on other parents or friends going too. If your parents weren’t, then “crappo smoke yuh pipe” – no carnival for you! If going, one would be filled with joy and gladness with much expectation and hope.

Participation would also depend on the financial resources of one’s parents. During that era, incomes were meagre and often woefully inadequate to meet household expenses, much less for carnival. To participate in carnival, parents had to make tremendous and immense sacrifices to buy outfits for themselves and the children, bus fares if you were travelling from the country to town, refreshments and related costs. Some parents would go to the night shows – namely, Queen show, village pageants, calypso and steelband competitions, carnival dances and fetes – while the children were limited to children’s carnival if and when finances could afford such.

So as not to depend entirely on their parents, children did their outmost to raise their own finances by engaging in summer jobs, running errands, doing things around the yard, helping out in the sugar cutting and reaping, burning charcoal, selling fruits, and many other revenue-generating activities.

Even though the parents would be attending or we had our own finances, one’s participation was still not certain, as going to carnival was often linked to good behaviour. To be left home with those not going was considered a punishment for committing offences, showing bad manners, breaching norms and values, and in general acting in such manner that didn’t deserve to be rewarded by going to carnival. For us, to be a good boy or a girl was a challenge then, as going to carnival was all that mattered.

Going to carnival then was a joy to behold as the opportunity given for one to come to town was rare; the next time was probably Christmas Eve day/night. The pleasure gained then in going to carnival was overwhelming, especially meeting other family members, school mates, friends and people from other communities and, in general, taking in the festive occasion. Of course, viewing the August Monday and Tuesday parade of troupes, floats and bands was a delight and we would contemplate being a member of a troupe, playing in a steelband, or attending the night shows when we attained the age to do so.

The social and the economic aspects were of great significance to all, in that social and class barriers were being broken down, relationships between town and country folks enhanced, and social fears removed through the development of relationships – be it love, casual friendships, groups and associations. The idea and feeling that we were one people was very evident then, more than any other time of the year. Carnival then was a great big social event and gathering, hence an analysis of the Economic and Social Impacts of Carnival needs to be undertaken and such might be the topic of a future presentation.  

Carnival then meant we were a part of the occasion that was gripping, obsessive and compelling, and we were appreciative of those sacrifices and hardships our parents and others endured in affording us the opportunity to be a part of the national event. It was also preparation for independence and maturity by being involved in beneficial activities and learning the strategies and know-how to deal and act in situations beyond one’s home environment, bearing in mind the very limited contact that one had then with people other than those of your immediate community. In that sense, carnival made us aware of life beyond our household.

The difference between what carnival meant then to what it means now is quite stark. The spirit of participation is not as willing, and the camaraderie that existed then is no longer evident due to the massive migration of Antiguans and Barbudans over the years, notable participants who have passed on, and the fact that members of the older generations are less tolerant and appreciative of the now trends and sounds.

Societal and cultural changes influencing mindsets, attitudes, behaviours, and even the art forms are such that it’s harder to appreciate the now than then. The emphasis on creativity, originality and the novelties of carnival then, seems no longer the meaning now, as seen in parade of costume bands, performing talents, songs, lyrics, etc. The cultural awakening then, driven by the need to make Antigua’s summer festival the greatest carnival – second only to Trinidad – is no longer that desire as seen from the management and organizing challenges, problems and constraints plaguing the now mission. To say such problems didn’t exist then would far from the truth, but the intention then was to be the best – unlike now – the ‘don’t care less’ attitude.

Having the same situations and problems re-occurring year after year without shame or responsibility is clearly a difference between then and now, when the Chairman and the organizing committee would then face very harsh comments and much criticism should the expectations of a good carnival not be realized, prompting resignations left, right and center; whereas now, such is not the case, as personal glory and honour supersede the national pride and joy of carnival.

Owing to the advances in age and the pre-occupation with other matters like personal safety, securing property, health, societal changes, economic and financial constraints, devotion to other undertakings, etcetera, have diminished the meaning and significance of going to and participating in carnival to the extent that for many residents carnival mattered then; it no longer matters now.

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