In the wise and amusing book, The Carnival, the eminent Julio Caro Baroja presents knowledge that is not dull and scholarly, but vibrant and teeming with creative energy. After studying carnivals in various countries, regions, and towns and their ceremonial customs, Caro Baroja criticizes the initial attempts to appropriate carnivals for the greater prestige and influence of the ruling class, explicitly referencing Florence under the rule of the Medici.
At the close of the 15th century, Lorenzo de’ Medici “transformed the Florentine carnival into a spectacle of opulence and grandeur, a magnificent display that captivated the masses, but primarily served to enhance his personal glory, his lineage, and his city, and to intimidate his political adversaries. The astute and powerful understood the unifying power that the carnival infused into society, and they only needed to steer it in the right direction for it to support their authority.
“The flaunting of extravagant attire, ornaments, and pursuit of extravagant luxury solidified the arrogance of the established power, giving it a remarkable public and theatrical dimension.” Lorenzo de’ Medici distributed wine, food, and confectionery in palatial halls and public squares. Caro Baroja recounts how carnivals thrived in certain Spanish cities in the 18th and 19th centuries, driven by the bourgeois classes, where elements of burlesque and parody, if present, were restricted to a minimum.
The carnivals of Santa Cruz de Tenerife – and of course those of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria– are relatively recent. There is little evidence of carnivals from the 18th century and the early 19th century, which always had a very reserved and restrained critical and mocking spirit under the overwhelming ideological and moral control of the Catholic Church. The affluent in the sugar aristocracy of the island invested in adorning churches and endowing convents rather than in masquerade festivities.
In reality, carnivals did not commence in these parts until the very end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, driven and led by the economically less constricted popular sectors: municipal employees, craftsmen, tavern keepers, water carriers. The common people did not have the means to indulge in a carnival amidst hunger, illnesses, and unhealthiness. This was the carnival of a modest, humble, and impoverished people – festivities disconnected from any belief, mythology, or practicality of rural life; essentially, celebrations for masking, jesting, and singing.
That is the origin of the Carnival in Tenerife, which only much later, from the seventies onwards, and especially after the end of the Francoist dictatorship, acquired its present appearance. It was then that the Medici effect started, and the political power poured more and more money into the festival and the groups, bureaucratized and regimented its organization, established contests and prizes, imposed rules and regulations. The political elite glorified the carnival to enhance their own image and sharpen their maneuvering.
Indeed, I criticize that regulated, competitive, and narcissistic carnival which, absurdly, takes itself seriously and proclaims an infinite pride devoid of any sense of humour. A carnival that no longer hesitates on the stage, but objects, no longer dances, but parades, no longer evokes emotions, but competes for a prize that means absolutely nothing; a carnival that no longer appoints our people to the panel for selecting the Queen, but third-rate celebrities often with ambiguous professional backgrounds.
But that is not what carnival is. Carnival reclaims itself in the streets. In the bewildering desire to be momentarily happy here and now. In not being able to contain laughter, the urge to dance, the excess of revelry, in blending into a crowd that doesn’t accuse, judge, or condemn anyone. You are a city that has chosen to live for just one week a year, but if that’s the case, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, live it to the fullest.