Mashramani, as most Guyanese know, is an Amerindian word, which is said to mean “Celebration after hard work”. Mashramani is often times “lumped” in the group of “carnival-like” celebrations, however, despite its similarities in manifestation, the origin and meaning behind Mashramani and other carnivals, for example the well-known Trinidadian Carnival are quite different.
Carnival celebrations have a long and somewhat ambiguous history. It is believed that some carnivals, for example the one from Italy, may have its roots in the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia, or Bacchanalia (a celebration of the Roman God of Wine, associated with wine, freedom, intoxication and ecstasy). It is also believed that the celebration was originally about the rebirth after winter, and carnival was a rite of passage, used to move from winter to summer, darkness to light, and was in some case regarded as a fertility celebration, as it was the first festival of spring. Carnival celebrations became a means of “role reversal”, they were used to mock persons in high social statuses, hence the costumes such as masks that we have come to know. It became about European folk culture. These origins were pagan, and as Christianity rose to dominance, they were denounced. However, due to their popularity, the festivals persisted, with Christianity finally absorbing the practices. Now carnival is celebrated in many Roman-Catholic countries right before the season of Lent, a 40-day period in which persons give up desires such as eating meat. This is perhaps where the word “carnival” itself is derived, from Medieval Latin carnem levare or carnelevarium, which means to take away or remove meat.
The carnival spread from Europe to the Caribbean with colonialism, and it is for this reason that Trinidad celebrates its Carnival on Shrove Thursday, the eve of Ash Wednesday, or the day before the beginning of Lent. Some Caribbean islands which were predominantly Anglican did not have carnival celebrations originally, but over time evolved similar rituals, some even placing the festival in August to skirt away from the competition of Trinidad.
Mashramani, in contrast, is a purely secular celebration. It has a fixed date, February 23, and is put in place to celebrate the country’s gain of republican status.
This is what differentiates Mashramani from most other carnivals around the world. Whilst similar attributes such as a float parade and costumes are persistent, the festival has no religious ties whatsoever. Costumes and masks are also believed to have originally been worn to allow people to lose their sense of individuality and promote greater social cohesion. Although this idea is consistent with carnival celebrations around the world, it is much more profound in meaning when viewed in the context of Guyana, because of the reason for our celebration. The costumes can be seen as a display of unity. Moreover, this is supported by the fact that each year, Mashramani is given a positive theme, and costumes must be designed to fit this theme. It can be said that in doing so, it represents the nation’s united resolve to achieve certain goals. This year, the theme for Mashramani is “Celebrate with Dignity, Liberty and Greater Unity”. How will you interpret this theme?