Exuberant crowds, fantastic costumes, thumping good music, floats and parades all herald the beginning of another Carnival - always a major event in the Caribbean region. In Guadeloupe, it is on the Sunday following Epiphany that the period of jubilation begins. As the beat becomes more and more frenetic and the party more powerful, the climax is reached on Ash Wednesday. The tradition clearly stems from the Christian ritual of celebration which would be allowed to take place before the fasting period of 40 days during Lent would begin, and involved supposedly the last feast where it was permitted to eat meat. Today, the appetite it serves to satisfy is the pronounced taste of the Antilles people for parties, for Carnival is basically now one enormous truly popular and completely free party. At what other time is it possible to see so great a turn-out of people of all generations from all communities in a true coming together in order simply to have fun and dance?
The carnival itself is the product of several months of preparations and rehearsals. Starting relatively calmly after Epiphany, the festivities are opened by youngsters in costumes which have often been skillfully put together by parents and teachers. Spot your own little devil, princess, butterfly or superhero precociously waggling to the reggae rhythms of the steel bands. Competition is fierce as prizes are awarded to the best outfit, cutest Miss Carnival and funkiest dance. The party evolves into the 'adult' parades during the subsequent 4 'fat' days, where very soon the pace quickens to a frenzy of vivid colours, gaudy kitsch and razzle dazzle . There are several traditional costumes which stand out somewhat, such as the 'Neg Gwo Siwo' who cover their bodies with tallow and cane syrup.
Apart from the large sound systems that boom out a beat, percussion, trumpets, trombones and whistles sound in stereo all of the big carnival hits. Over the past few years, the creation of several 'carnival committees' has contributed to the organization of various aspects of the festivities into true performance: a choreography of costumes, floats and musical accompaniment which never ceases to delight the onlooker and fellow reveller alike.
On the Tuesday morning, the required costume in Guadeloupe is, bizarrely enough, pyjamas, for the 'Vidés en pyjama'. Fat Tuesday is the day of the famous red-and-black parade at Basse-Terre and Pointe-à-Pitre, during which horned head-dresses are donned along with blood-red clothing decorated with shards of mirrors. Finally, Ash Wednesday is the day that the King of the Carnival, Vaval, meets his doom. After a long procession of 'mourners' clad in black and white passes through the streets with a puppet of the King leading the way, he is burned at nightfall.
The other major family occasion on the island is also a period for celebrating and gathering. All Saints Day is often associated with a time of remembrance and even for grief in Western European culture, but here in Guadeloupe, the festival takes on a slightly different quality as the pain of separation from a loved one quickly changes to become a happy celebration of the life of the deceased. Where funeral vigils are held, they are mainly seen as an opportunity to assemble the entire family, friends and acquaintances of the deceased and as well as sharing moments of sadness, the emphasis will be on the recounting of an important or amusing anecdote in order to illustrate the personality of the deceased, and thus strongly evoke their presence. The ritual forms an attempt to instill happy memories as if to ward off death, who is said to be wandering by to check up on the 'joie de vivre'.
For All Saints day, similarly, families are accustomed to get together in cemeteries to spruce up the aspect of the graves of relatives and thus spend time together until night falls, when the graves will be covered by red and white candles forming an absolutely magical impression. The cemetery of Morne à l'eau in Guadeloupe has an incredible setting, rising in tiers like a theatre in the arch of the hillside, and is one of the most beautiful sights to see in this, one of the most private and personal of Caribbean celebrations.