Holidays in Martinique


photo by Martinique Promotion Bureau

From the Carnival to All Saints Day, here are two huge celebrations in Martinique agents should tell their clients about.

The Carnival is the major event of the year in Martinique. It’s held during several days leading up to Ash Wednesday, and it’s a time when Martinicans parade all day and party through the night. And what a party it is. In his short story, “Music for Chameleons,” the late Truman Capote wrote that Carnival in Martinique was “surprisingly vital, spontaneous and vivid as an explosion in a fireworks factory.”

Martinique’s Carnival officially begins on the Saturday preceding Ash Wednesday, but it really starts in January, right after New Year’s Day. That’s when each town and village starts to rehearse, prepare costumes, and design and build floats for the Carnival parades. Each village’s unique costumes and displays are kept away from prying eyes during these preparations, only to be revealed during the Carnival parades in Fort-de-France. Martinicans also prepare by holding preliminary celebrations, especially in the larger towns and cities, where there is a party every weekend building up to the main event.

The official kick-off day is Samedi Gras (Fat Saturday), which Martinicans mark by partying all night. Actually, the Martinicans mark every day of Carnival by partying all night, dancing to biguine music, zouk, salsa, calypso, and reggae.

The first parade occurs on the next day, Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday). That’s when costumed marchers play musical instruments or carry around elaborately dressed puppets called bwa bwa. Many revelers dress up as traditional Carnival characters, like the nègres-gros-sirop, caricatures of rebel slaves from Africa. With their bodies covered in coal tar and sugar-cane syrup, they run through the crowd and playfully fighten children. Another major Carnival character is Marianne la po fig, who is dressed entirely in dried banana leaves (Fig is Creole for banana).

Presiding over the festivities is the Carnival King, Vaval, who is actually a satirical mannequin, often representing a public figure or institution. This "king" is carried through the streets at the head of the parade. Seated next to him is the Carnival Queen, a beauty who is elected from among the local queens chosen by towns and villages around the island.

Each of the next three days has its own theme.

Lundi Gras (Fat Monday) is the day for burlesque, in the form of “Mock Weddings.” A large part of the male population of Martinique is dressed up in their wives’ bridal dresses, often dolled up as pregnant brides or blond-wigged floozies; and the women are dressed up as reluctant bridegrooms. At the costumed balls later that night, drag is the official dress code.

The theme for Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is “Red Devils,” when adults and children alike are dressed in brilliant red jumpsuits adorned with hundreds of glittering mirrors and small tinkling bells. They carry homemade tridents and wear frightful masks of animal skin and horns.

Then there’s Ash Wednesday. In many parts of the world, this is the day for penitance...and hangovers, the day when one’s aching head is daubed with ashes at church. Not so in Martinique, where the attitude is : “Rejoice today, repent tomorrow.”

So, they keep on partying. Wednesday is the Day of the She-Devils, who gather to “mourn” at the funeral of King Vaval, which marks the last day of the Carnival. Only two colors are worn: black and white. The She-Devils’ faces are smeared with pale ash or white flour. They typically wear an embroidered petticoat and blouse, a black skirt, a headscarf fashioned from a white damask table napkin, and mismatched black-and-white socks, shoes, and gloves. If you want to join in, you don’t have to be a She-Devil, as long as you’re dressed in black and white.

On Wednesday the festivities continue until dusk, when the flame is lit to burn King Vaval’s effigy. As the flames die down, a calm settles over the crowd, which then begins chanting, "Vaval, pa quitté nou," or “Carnival, don’t leave us,” and "Vaval mô, vaval mô," which means “Carnival is dead.”

And so, the celebrations are over. The music, the costumes, the dancing, partying, and parades are all just a fond memory. Well...not quite. Three weeks into Lent, the revelry begins again, if only for a day. This holiday, known as Mi-Carême, or "mid-Lent," is a reprise of Carnaval in miniature, with 24 hours of parades, costumes, marching bands, dancing, and good food and rum.

The other major holiday in Martinique is very serious in character: Toussaint, or “All Saints Day.” Martinicans observe the holiday over two days, All Saints Day, on November 1st, and All Souls Day, on November 2. On these days, they honor their lost loved ones by tidying up their graves and decorating them with flowers and candles. During the two nights, the cemeteries of Martinique present a strikingly beautiful sight, as they glow in the light of thousands of candles. This is a time for sadness and remembrance, but also a time for socializing and catching up on gossip.