Lavish Carnival masquerades take place every February in more than 20 cities across Spain. Participants in Carnival, a public festival of excess that ushers in the observance of Lent, don elaborate costumes and masks, often doing wild and radical things that would otherwise be socially unacceptable. Masks have historically served to protect the identities of these Carnival-goers. They also contribute to the beauty, mystery and glittering spectacle of the festival.
Masks have traditionally served three purposes in Spanish celebrations of Carnival: decoration, anonymity and personal expression. Carnival is a time of joy before the dark, ascetic period of Lent. Brightly colored and decorated masks contribute to the holiday’s joyful quality. Masks have also allowed Carnival participants to maintain anonymity while engaging in excessive behavior. Although the masks and costumes at Carnival are often wild, they can also be incisive and clever, mocking public figures and making personal or political statements.
According to a 1993 article by anthropologist David Gilmore, Spanish Carnival allows for the temporary suspension of personal identity and social status. Participants transgress gender and class boundaries while ignoring religious and social rules. Masks represent this social fluidity. They also allow Carnival-goers to take on new identities to act in ways that, any other time of year, would be improper or shocking. Masks are part of the reason that, at Carnival, essentially anything goes.
Carnival in Spain is descended from the Italian Carnival of Venice. European Carnivals derive many traditions from the Roman festival Saturnalia and the Greek festival Dionysia, both of which involved masked parades. Spanish Carnival was banned by the Franco dictatorship between 1938 and 1981, transforming the festival into an act of political protest. During this time, as David Gilmore details in his article “The Democratization of Ritual: Andalusian Carnival after Franco,” masks protected the identities of politically subversive Carnival-goers.
Masks can be glimpsed at many Spanish Carnival celebrations, the most lavish of which take place in Cadiz, Tenerife and Stiges. However, masks are particularly popular at the Carnivals in Spain's Zamora region, which shares a border and Iberian cultural heritage with Northern Portugal. For travelers interested in acquiring a detailed knowledge of Zamora's Carnival masks, the Iberian Mask and Costume Museum, located in Braganca, Portugal, has two floors dedicated to Carnival and masquerade festivities in Zamora.
Although masks are an important part of Carnival in Spain, they are not mandatory attire. The permissiveness of contemporary society, combined with the importance of free, democratic expression in post-Franco Spain, means that masks are no longer necessary. However, they are still integral to Carnival experience, because they represent the joy, beauty and social cohesion that the holiday brings about.