Different islands celebrate Carnival at various times of the year. If you really want an adventure, you could plan an entire year to tour the Caribbean islands, following the various Carnivals. St. Barth’s Carnival coincides with Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, which falls the day before Ash Wednesday. If you’re Catholic you know that’s the day Lent starts and you’re supposed to give up a bunch of stuff you love. I was raised Catholic, but, much to my father’s dismay, am no longer a “practicing” catholic… in other words, I’ve given up giving up stuff for Lent.
Carnival day is the greatest day of the year!
To many St. Barth inhabitants, this is the greatest day of the year. Those who are really into it, get together with friends weeks or months in advance to come up with unique and creative costume ideas. (See stages of my 2014 costume progression here; the theme Old Baguettes.) Because this is a small island, it isn’t as easy as just running out to the local 8,000 square foot mega-party store to just purchase your costume. Oh no, this requires planning, advanced timing and patience. If you’re really creative, you gather your supplies locally, by whatever means, dig out your glue gun, sewing machine, staple gun or spray paint and get to work. You’ll probably still be required to make a day trip to neighboring island of St. Martin or order items online though. Regardless, planning is imperative.
The process is half the fun.
I’ve participated in Mardi Gras festivities for 9 out of the past 10 years. I look forward to this day more than my birthday or Christmas. Literally. We’ll be arriving in St. Barth the day before Carnival and I’m excited to show my traveling companions what this is all about! I love Carnival and there is no way on God’s green earth that I am about to spend this one as a spectator and not a participant just because of timing! So this year the process will be different. I know I can’t possibly get them as amped up about Carnival as I would with island friends. They’ve never experienced it, they have no idea what they’re in for. Plus, with crazy work and other traveling schedules, even if I did get them jazzed about creating costumes, there’s still logistics of getting together to do all the work, followed by getting the costumes to the island in one piece. No, this year the process will consist of me going to an 8,000 square-foot mega-party store and searching for unusual, fun, easy to carry, unbreakable, lightweight costume ideas that can easily be jammed into our luggage. This year’s process will be different. Nothing handmade and nothing we’d mind leaving behind on the island.
This is not a spectator sport.
There are no rules to Carnival costumes, but one common-sense guideline to follow is, keep in mind it’ll most likely be 80°F, 80% humidity and in full sun. This means no heavy costumes and no caked-on makeup that’ll drip off our faces within an hour. I made the trip to the party store, and after many tours up and down the aisles, tossing items in the cart, creating ensembles as I went, I had the basics to present to my Carnival Cohorts!
We planned to have dinner together a week before our departure, meeting at Ship’s and my apartment. This is when I’d spring my evil plan on them: Carnival is not a spectator sport. We’re all participating, whether you want to or not!… if you want… and here are the costumes I bought that you will each wear… If you want. Holding breath, hoping for positive responses to my requests that we all dress up. Good sports that they are, they respond positively, and are even excited about it, I couldn’t have hoped for a better response. Just a few minor tweaks to a couple of the costume ideas and only one trip back to mega party store for exchanges and we have a plan for our ensembles! Silly, fun, low maintenance costumes. I present to you:
- A Beer Girl
- A “Lost Boy” on a Milk Carton
- A Bomber Pilot
- A Biker Princess
Carnival is here.
I’m excited about the day. After a cup of coffee, Ship and I make a trip to the store for food supplies that I didn’t want to go for last night. We also pick up supplies for my customary Carnival Punch, which is basically a combo of Rum Punch, Painkiller and Planteur’s Punch, made well in advance to taste, then placed in the freezer to chill for as long as possible.
We head into town at lunchtime. I park on the outskirts of Gustavia since the roads will be closed for the rest of the day for festivities, and we walk into town wearing our regular clothes, carrying our costumes in bags. We decide to eat at what used to be a popular spot when I lived here, but has since changed management and now “the service is crap” according to my English friends… I didn’t know this beforehand. We get a table and sit and wait for a very long time, even by French standards, for someone to bring us menus. I’m getting nervous. Parade starts at 3 PM, it’s well after 1:30 and at this rate, we’ll just be getting lunch when the parade is half over. We collectively decide to find someplace else to eat and end up at a burger place called Le Gustav. They’re packed, every employee and manager is frantically buzzing around tables but happily greet us and promise us a table within 5 minutes. I don’t know how this is possible with every table jammed full, but we agree, order a few beers from the bar & wait.
As promised, a table is cleared and we’re seated 5 minutes after arriving. We’re brought another round of drinks & order our burgers. It’s a fun atmosphere and the burgers are great, but I am antsy. This isn’t my usual Carnival routine, I’m anxious to get changed and get to the festivities. I text my English friends, Danielle and Alex to tell them “We’re at Le Gustav eating, we’ll be over as soon as we’re finished” Danielle’s response: “eating is cheating! Just start boozing!” …Yep, that’ll come soon enough. We finish lunch and start walking through town. By now the streets are filling up with Carnival-goers dressed in costume.
I feel like a tourist in regular clothes.
We wander through the crowd and find my friends in the usual spot where we’ve gathered every year. This is the first time I’ve seen them since leaving 18 months ago, and I’m a bit more emotional than I expected. I fight back the tears as I hug them hello, this is not the time for tears, this is the time for celebration! The four of us split off from them and head up to Alex’s apartment to change. The moment I put on my costume I feel at ease. We all regard each other’s outfits, take a few swigs from our Carnival Punch bottles and head back out the door to join the masses. I am in my element! I am home!
Music, shenanigans, booze!
What more can I say…the next 3 to 4 hours consisted of dancing in the streets, following floats, bumping into old friends, tons of laughs, good times and booze. I am thrilled that my traveling companions have as much fun as I’d hoped they’d have. I’ve wanted them to have a good experience from day 1, and here we are on my absolute favorite day of the year and I’d say it’s been a success.
Have I mentioned how much I love Carnival?!