The burial of the sardine on Shrove Tuesday ends the carnival celebrations. | M.A. CAÑELLAS


I once told the late George Giri that it was he who helped to spark off my interest in Mallorca’s traditions and customs. George, as many of you will recall, wrote a weekly Bulletin column about rural Mallorca and would, from time to time, talk about the island’s festivities. There was one story in particular that fired my imagination. It wasn’t specific to Mallorca, but it was nevertheless fascinating. No, more than that; it was downright weird - the burial of the sardine on Shrove Tuesday.

This is imagination, as I have come to appreciate, that leaps beyond a standard meaning of individuals forming new ideas or conjuring up images and concepts not immediately present to the senses. It is a collective imagination of an island heritage, of what there used to once be but which resides within the collective in the present. A form of birthright, it is an imagination of the fantastic, the strange and the mysterious, rooted so far back in time that it is near impossible to assign a precise source in the past. It exists, because it has existed for so long. And in the case of Carnival, the roots are indeed ancient and would have been evident in Mallorca from the time of the Romans, perhaps earlier.

Imagination and creativity go hand in hand, and so the current-day Carnival is an occasion for creating the fantastic - the costumes and the floats. Yet, the imagination made visual by these elements of the parades has tended to subordinate the essence of a tradition long founded on its subversive character. The need for a street party has assumed prime importance over the content and context of what, and only until relatively recently, was the expression of Carnival.

In post-conquest Christian Mallorca, Carnival was documented very early; almost immediately in fact. For the distribution of land that had belonged to the vanquished Muslims, Jaume I announced that the “auction” would last until Easter. It would start on ‘Carnestoltes’, the old term for Carnival which was derived from the time of Pope Gregory I (590-604) and his establishment of Lent - “carnes tollere”, forbidden meats. The word Carnival itself would seem to come from the Italian “carnelevare”, which at a stretch can be taken to mean a meat takeaway; the actual meaning is more in line with the pope’s.

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What Gregory probably hadn’t reckoned on was that this prohibition would result in a pre-carnes tollere period of bingeing - in all manner of ways - that drew inspiration from Greek and Roman festivals. Carnival subversion, Carnival satire, Carnival debauchery live long in the imagination. The wearing of masks, the adoption of disguise have for just as long panicked authoritarian rulers. Franco didn’t like Carnival one little bit, and not just because it offended his conservative Catholicism. Who might all those masked men and women really be? Subversive agents? He banned Carnival.

Jaume I’s mention of Carnestoltes was well before other documented records. 1521 is the year of the first record of ‘dijous llarder’ (fat Thursday), and this may have acted as a specific point of reference, as the date was February 7, which was when the Germania, Revolt of the Brotherhoods, started. In 1530, it was noted in Soller that the last days of Carnival were a time for going out “and making noise and playing pranks”. An outlawing of Carnival traditions followed eighteen years later. On January 23, 1548, there was a declaration which stated that anyone wearing costumes would be punished.

In general, though, prohibitions were more akin to local bylaws or regulations for fiestas. In the Mallorca of the current day, there are rules governing certain fiesta events, such as the almond shell and water fight in Petra. Each year, the town hall issues a stern reminder that participants such as the pipers must not be pelted with almond shells or sprayed with water. So it was for Carnival in 1682, when a royal proclamation made clear that throwing oranges during what was a sort of procession when people made a hell of a racket was strictly forbidden; it was punishable by 30 days in prison and a fine of ten Mallorcan pounds.

Throwing things was to nevertheless become standard practice. The villages of Mallorca acquired their own specific customs associated with parades that were less of a rabble than the noisy free-for-alls of the late seventeenth century. Even so, oranges were popular (punishments having been scrapped) for chucking at people on the parades, who happily chucked them back. Bull dung was another favourite apparently, although the people on the parades might have been less inclined to return this particular compliment. Hurling pots at people’s doors was a common prank, and if the people in question weren’t liked, the pots would contain something unpleasant.

Nowadays, sweets are about all that are thrown. The parades are a vibrant explosion of colour and fun for all the family. Gone, though, is the former content, such as the bull dung and the wildness that in 1906, for instance, provoked a reproach in the local press - “signs of debauchery and disorder”. Gone also is the context - that subversion and that mystery. Or has it? Who’s behind the mask?