It’s Carnival time in the Virgin Islands!
by Vivian Williamson-Bryan
In St. Thomas (not St. Croix and not St. John – they have their own celebrations) this is the biggest, most awaited event of the year. To St. Thomians, Carnival is more important and much more exciting than Christmas, New Year’s and the 4th of July – individually and probably collectively too. Of course, it no doubt helps that Carnival is a month long celebration – no mere day could satisfy the lust of the true Carnival fanatic.
The first 2 weeks start slowly with events scheduled (a word loosely interpreted in the Virgin Islands) intermittently. This is the time for selecting the Carnival royalty (to many islanders being Carnival queen is more prestigious than being Miss Virgin Islands) and for traditional events such as a greased pig contest and a toddler’s derby.
The real push comes in the final 2 weeks with the first of those weeks devoted to nightly musical competitions and shows that continue well into the wee hours. This is the died-and-gone-to-heaven time for all the calypso aficionados out there (however, for the poor folk whose homes are in the vicinity and might have to go to work the next day it might be considered the died-and gone-to-hell time — I speak from experience). This is also the week for the Carnival boat races.
Then at last comes the week everyone’s been waiting for – even lukewarm Carnival fans enjoy Carnival Village and/or the parades. It’s the time to let loose, visit with friends possibly not seen since last Carnival (you wouldn’t think that possible since we have a population of only 50,000 living in 32 square miles but believe me it’s not that uncommon!), feast on traditional foods that are seldom seen anymore (I’m even including a samplerecipe so you can make yourself a taste of Carnival), and have a good time in general. There are even people who take annual vacation during this time so they can really party hearty and not have to worry about mundane things like work – after all there are a lot of important things happening in the final week. Besides the nightly forays to the Village (where things are hopping just about all night long) there is the final calypso competition, Carnival Food Fair (my favorite – I have my priorities right), and J’ouvert (this almost defies definition – let me just say that it is groups of people dancing alongside trucks carrying immensely popular local bands from outlying points- usually a mile or two away – converging on Carnival Village. Needless to say this exertion is well fueled by liquid nourishment and usually an uproarious time is had by all).
The culmination of this month of festivities is a 2 day extravaganza of parades. On Friday there is the Children’s Parade – a relatively sedate affair compared to the Adult’s Parade that takes place the next day. The schools and various organizations participate wholeheartedly by creating colorful floats accompanied by revelers in training (costume-clad children) and, of course, there’s lots of music – both steel pan and regular bands. Now the Adult’s Parade. This is it. All out revelry at its finest. I guarantee if your only experience with parade-going is in the U.S. you will not have seen anything quite like it. Granted, there will be some skimpier costumes in Rio (some of theirs consist of paint and approximately 6 sq. in.of material – I’m not lying), some glitzier and grander in Trinidad and New Orleans. This is a parade with heart. It lasts about 8 hours (!) and takes quite a bit of stamina (and that good old liquid nourishment) to get the paraders to the end of the route. And I’m not talking dreary old marching – this is a “dancing shuffle” for miles in the hot sun. This is the chance to show off costumes and routines that have been almost a year in the making. There are thousands of people lining the parade route, all bouncing in time to an absolute cacophony of sound – when one group passes with its choice of music the void is soon filled with the music of the next – the excitement of the day is really infectious. Then, all too soon, the parade is over. Some (those who have been more prudent at marshaling their physical resources) prolong the inevitable and head to the Village for one last go-around and wait for the fireworks over St. Thomas harbor that signal the official close of Carnival for another year.
Although it’s probably too late for you to join us for this year’s Carnival (unless you’re a real impulsive type), it’s never too early to start planning for next year. Carnival is a popular time for Virgin Islanders living in the states to come for a visit and also tourists like to take advantage of low-season rates that start mid April. It’s a terrific time to visit!