Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 days of Lent leading to Easter. Lent is a period of repentance and reflection – inner and outer. It is often a time of giving up something or taking on something. For Christians, it is a solemn time.
The time preceding Lent is anything but solemn. It is a time to celebrate, party, and be festive. In North America it is Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday); in Central and South America it is Carnival. Carnival erupts on the 4 days preceding Ash Wednesday. It includes the crowning of a queen, parades, mock battles, and drinking. Carnival occurs during the warmest months of the year. One tradition, consequently, is the spraying of water on the crowds. This can be from large tank trucks, or from simple spray guns, or burst water balloons.
On the night of the fourth day, there is usually a mock funeral parade, complete with coffin. Inside that coffin is a sardine or its mock equivalent. This parade is the high point of Carnival and the last event before the dawn of Ash Wednesday. The burying of the sardine is a folkloric tradition from Spain with uncertain origin. One tale is that the King in Madrid gave all his people sardines on this day (reminiscent of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000). Since Madrid is far from the ocean, the sardines arrived spoiled and instead of eating them, they had to be buried (some traditions say they were burned). Another theory is that the burying of the sardine is a protest against the Church for the strictures they were about to inflict during Lent. Today, in either case, there is usually a late night parade with either the casket or an effigy to be burned.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has slammed itself on Carnival the last couple of years. Some celebrations have been scaled back or discontinued altogether. Prior to that, the largest Carnival in Central America took place at Las Tablas, on the Azuero Peninsula, about in the center of the country. This town of about 10,000 welcomes some 200,000 people for its celebration. Here is a video of the 4th night parade:
Another look at Carnival is the painting by Francisco Goya, created in 1820.
Whether Christian or not, Panamanians keep their traditions alive by celebrating to the fullest extent possible.
Fact: The Las Tablas Carnival is Central America’s largest pre-Lenten carnival
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