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Trinidad & Tobago Celebrations & Festivals

The Trinidad & Tobago Great Race. Photo: Lyden Thomas

The Trinidad & Tobago Great Race. Photo: Lyden Thomas

Few things speak more eloquently to Trinidad and Tobago’s reputation as a place where people like to party, and as a multi-cultural melange, than the quantity and variety of festivals on the national calendar. (For an even greater number than listed here, visit our Calendar & Events page).

Antigua says it has 365 beaches: one for every day of the year. Dominica claims 365 rivers. It is not true to say there is a major celebration every day in this country — it merely feels that way.

Many of the festivals are religious, though not all require piety, and most are welcoming to those outside the particular faith or tradition they are celebrating.

Carnival is the most famous of Trinidad and Tobago’s celebrations. None of those listed here reach the scale of Carnival: it is, effectively, the national festival.

But each has its appeal, and collectively there may be no better way to discover this country, its people and their preferences than by joining the festivities – whichever ones may be occurring when you’re here.

Note: Not every fete, festival, ritual or celebration is listed here, and several of those listed are moveable feasts – subject to change or not confirmed until quite soon before they occur. Trinidad and Tobago is still a country to which the newspaper is important. Check any one of the national newspapers for advertisements or articles describing upcoming events.

JANUARY

1: New Year’s Day – public holiday. Preceded, of course, by New Year’s Eve parties and fetes. A good time to try some pelau: a rice, meat, and black-eyed peas dish considered a harbinger of good fortune at this time of year.

Pan Festivals: The steelpan is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, and a ubiquitous presence at events year round. There are several events dedicated to steelpan music during the year. Many will be promoted by Pan Trinbago, the principal organisation representing the instrument, its music and its players: www.pantrinbago.co.tt

Harvest Festivals: Tobago’s Heritage Festival – in the middle of the year – is the single largest celebration of Tobagonian culture and history on the national calendar. Throughout the year, however, the communities of Tobago celebrate harvest festivals. Most will start with a church service in the morning, a cantata (choral entertainment) in the afternoon, and communal eating, drinking and celebration throughout. There is scarcely a time of year when there isn’t a Harvest Festival in Tobago. Check local listings for details.

FEBRUARY

Carnival – Just two days in February? No…it’s so much more.

Note: In T&T, government-mandated public holidays occupy only a small part of the national calendar. Carnival, for example, is not technically a public holiday – but it is a time when it is naive to expect to find anyone working (unless they are working in Carnival). Similarly, other festivals of note may not be officially attached to a national holiday, but an understanding of the events of importance to an individual or community is a step toward knowing the days they are likely to take off during the year.

Tobago Carnival Regatta: Usually held just after Carnival, the regatta – styled “the festival of wind” – invites local and international competitors to join a celebration of sailing in many forms: from dinghies to windsurfing and kite-surfing. Pigeon Point is the centre of the activities, and the only dedicated water sports facilitators on the beach – Radical Sports – is the place to consult for details: www.radicalsportstobago.com

19: Chinese New Year – Trinidad (not so much Tobago) has a significant population of Chinese descent. Chinese New Year celebrations are generally organised by local cultural associations. Check local newspapers for announcements.

MARCH

Phagwa (Holi): This globally celebrated Hindu festival sees the main festivities in Trinidad often staged on the Sunday closest to the official date.

A young Hindu prince, Prahlaad, is condemned to death by fire because he refuses to worship the king, his father, as god. The king’s sister, Holika, is given the task of burning the child but he survives and she perishes instead. Phagwa celebrates this in an exuberant display of song, dance, and colour.

Most commonly known as Holi, this festival is well known around the world. Participants throw coloured dyes at, on and over each other. The dyes represent the ashes of Holika (though there is also a story connecting the tradition to the deity Krishna).

It is a spring festival, associated with ideas of renewal and love. But for the casual observer, and even the devout, it is primarily a time of music and celebration.

30: Spiritual Shouter Baptist Liberation Day – public holiday. In 1917, the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance was enacted. For 34 years this syncretic religion (a mix of Christian and African elements) was banned, ostensibly, for no greater reason than the loud sounds of their singing and clapping. Though the law was repealed in 1951, there was no holiday recognition until 1996.

APRIL

Easter: We’ve managed to stretch the solemn commemoration into the longest of long weekends. Start with Good Friday which comes with the often hilarious spectacle of the beating of an effigy called a “bobolee”. It was originally of the apostle Judas but now extends to politicians and other suspect personages. The Monday after Easter is also a holiday.

Many of the events and traditions of the Easter weekend borrow heavily from those observed in England: parades of bonnet-clad children, sticky hot cross buns, a multiplicity of Christian religious ceremonies. There is also horse racing in Arima, and racing of an entirely different set of animals in Tobago.

Tobago’s Buccoo Goat and Crab Race festival is on the Tuesday but is not a public holiday. Now staged in a purpose-built stadium – perhaps the world’s only dedicated goat racing arena – there is abundant food, drink, people and some extremely athletic goats. There is also goat racing at Mount Pleasant recreation ground on Easter Monday.

Tobago Jazz Experience: A late-April concert series, usually lasting about a week and attracting internationally renowned performers to venues around Tobago. Check www.visittobago.gov.tt for announcements – details of the coming year’s festival are often released in December.

Bocas Lit Fest: A five-day literary festival running toward the end of April which attracts writers and poets of international reputation for workshops, readings and presentation of annual prizes for fiction, non-fiction and poetry. See www.bocaslitfest.com for details.

Point Fortin Borough Day: The “day” is actually a two-week period of festivities staged in the southernmost place one might recognise as a town (the population of the south-western peninsula of Trinidad is sparse). Easily accessible by bus or taxi from San Fernando, Point Fortin’s mid-April to early-May celebrations are something of a mini-Carnival. Check local listings or the website of the borough corporation: www.pointfortinborough.com

MAY

La Divina Pastora – a uniquely Trinidadian celebration in the southern town of Siparia, at the Roman Catholic church of La Divina Pastora. The church houses a statue of the Virgin Mary as La Divina Pastora (the Divine Shepherdess) and the second Sunday after Easter is her feast day. The statue itself is thought to have been brought to Siparia by Spanish missionaries in the eighteenth century. Since then, she has been associated with miracles and attracted a devout following. Her feast day is celebrated by a procession in Siparia followed by a festival attended by believers and non-believers.

La Divina Pastora of Siparia has not restricted her miracles to Christians. To believers in the Hindu community, she is Siparee Mai (mother of Siparia). And she also attracts devotees from other religions. During Easter week – Maundy (or Holy) Thursday and Good Friday, in particular the night separating the two days – Hindus will visit the church to offer acts of devotion to Siparee Mai. So too will followers of other faiths. The church welcomes all devotees wishing to pay their respects.

Rapsofest: An annual series of public (often free) workshops culminating in performances. Rapso is an indigenous Trinidadian musical form, sometimes described as street poetry, sometimes described as calypso combined with hip-hop or rap. This festival seeks to promote and educate, and offers not just the opportunity to see the masters of this form at work, but also the chance to learn about Trinidadian musical culture and history. Check local listings for details. Rapsofest often runs for about a month, starting with workshops (often around Port of Spain) in April and ending with performances in May.

30: Indian Arrival Day – public holiday. A marking of the coming of the East Indians who were brought to the islands as indentured workers, often under scarcely better than fraudulent contracts, to carry out labour no longer being performed for free by African slaves. The date itself commemorates the arrival of the first ship from India: the Fatel Razack (probably not the correct spelling of an Arabic transliteration, but a more generally accepted rendition than the barely literate Futtle Razak entered on the ship’s manifest), which reached Trinidad on May 30, 1845.

JUNE

Corpus Christi – public holiday. The Thursday after Trinity Sunday in the Western Christian liturgical calendar, the feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the Eucharist: the Christian sacrament which commemorates Jesus Christ’s instructions to his disciples to remember him by accepting bread – “This is my body” – and wine – “This is my blood”.

19: Labour Day – public holiday. Commemorates the emergence of an organised labour movement in Trinidad. June 19, 1937 was the start Butler Oilfield Riots – violent protests triggered by the attempted arrest of labour activist Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler. Although imprisoned at the time it was formally registered, he is recognised as the leader of Trinidad’s first Trade Union: the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union, established shortly after the riots concluded in 1937. Although a national figure, he was most active in Fyzabad, an oil belt town south of San Fernando. A statue of Butler stands outside the OWTU offices there, at Charlie King junction – named after a policemen killed during the riots.

Ganga Dhaaraa – This Hindu festival celebrates that which is sacred and powerful of all rivers and waters, but has a clear line to the reverence in which India’s River Ganga is held. Its focus on purity and nature has made it a rare combination of religion and public awareness on matters of environmental sensitivity. Usually held in mid-late June, it is a matter of serious religious observance for Hindus. But some events encourage visitors. The annual celebration in the forest near the north coast village of Blanchisseuse is perhaps the biggest, best known, and most inviting to interested non-believers. Check local press for announcements.

29: St. Peter’s Day – the feast day of Christianity’s patron saint of fishermen is a time for fishing festivals around the country. Carenage in Trinidad and Charlotteville in Tobago may be the best known on each island.

JULY

Mango Festival – A relatively new addition to the calendar, the festival binds a week of mango-related activities to a finale usually held at the University of the West Indies field station in Mount Hope. There are many types of mango, and many ways to prepare one – the festival is as close as one may get to a one-stop shop for them all. Usually held in early July. Check local listings.

Eid-ul-Fitr – public holiday (which varies by the moon each year). The most widely recognised of our Islamic observances, Eid (to which it is often abbreviated) marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. The end of Ramadan’s austerity and fasting is celebrated in homes and mosques.

Tobago Heritage Festival – Song, dance, games, food, oral traditions, folklore and depictions of by-gone ways and days. For a couple of weeks, it’s an all-out celebration of Tobago history. The festival usually runs from mid-July to the beginning of August. Opening and closing nights are reliable big events, but every day brings its own highlight, staged across the length and breadth of the island. Check www.visittobago.gov.tt for details.

AUGUST

1: Emancipation Day: public holiday. The abolition of slavery in the British Empire was a slow and grudging process. The slave trade was ended in 1807, but it took another 26 years for slavery itself to be outlawed. August 1, 1833, marks the official abolition of slavery by parliamentary statute in the British Empire. There were, however, conditions attached: most slaves remained effectively shackled by an “apprenticeship”, which did not end in Trinidad until August 1, 1838. The event speaks most to those of African descent, and the celebrations often attract distinguished guests and entertainers from the continent. Parades and re-enactments punctuate the day, and there is a general celebration of African culture and the traditions brought to Trinidad by colonialism’s insatiable appetite for forced labour.

Santa Rosa Carib Festival – Celebrating the first Trinidadians: the indigenous Amerindians. The Carib community pays homage to their traditions of prayer and cultural practices. The crowing of the Carib Queen is a prominent part of the activities. Santa Rosa de Lima is linked to the conversion to Catholicism of the Caribs. A mix of beliefs and how they co-exist is not unusual in our country but this may be one of the more complex ones to get your head around. The north-eastern town of Arima is the centre of the celebrations. The festival is typically held in the last week of August.

Oshun River Festival – Paying homage to the Yoruba goddess of fertility, beauty and bounty. She is an important figure to followers of the Orisha faith, a religion once virtually outlawed, as it represented a subversive defiance of the colonial desire to see the African population abandon its traditions and adopt the customs and beliefs of the society into which they had been forced. The Orisha religion was formally recognised in Trinidad and Tobago by an Act of Parliament in 1995. This festival is one of the more visible aspects of its followers’ traditions, though it is often necessary to keep a close eye on local news to identify which river and which day – usually in August – may be the site of a particular celebration.

31: Independence Day – public holiday. Marks the occasion – August 31st, 1962 – of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence from Great Britain. The day is formally celebrated by military parades at the Savannah in Port of Spain and in Scarborough, Tobago. National political leaders will be in attendance. It is also an occasion on which National Awards are presented to esteemed citizens of the republic. Firework displays often conclude the celebrations in both Trinidad and Tobago.

SEPTEMBER

24: Republic Day – public holiday. This day commemorates Trinidad and Tobago’s decision to become a Republic: formally renouncing its former constitution, effectively inherited from Britain and recognising the Queen as the head of state, and adopting a new, indigenous constitution in which a Trinidadian citizen assumed the role of head of state embodied by the office of the President.

The country officially became a Republic on August 1st, 1976. The event is celebrated on September 24th as the day when the first Parliament met under the new constitution.

Tobago Fest: Conceived as an out-of-season Carnival to attract visitors during a traditionally slow period in the tourism calendar, Tobago Fest re-stages many of the main event’s set pieces – a parade of bands, J’Ouvert – on a smaller scale, and offers some variations on the theme, such as Night Mas, a Carnival procession after dark. NB: this event has not taken place over the last couple of years. The event is tentatively set to return in September 2016.

Parang Festivals: A musical form which manages the singular feat of being both indisputably Trinidadian and attributed to another country, Parang is thought to have arrived here with Venezuelan migrant workers shipped in by the Spanish. The tradition is largely associated with Christmas, but events showcasing the music start as early as September.

Parang season is a good excuse to visit Paramin, a village set high in the Northern Range and well known not just for its music but also its pastelles: meat and cornmeal patties, available year round, but most strongly linked to the Christmas season.

trinidad + tobago film festival: an annual showcase of films from or about the country, the Caribbean, or its diaspora. Usually runs for two weeks toward the end of September. Check www.ttfilmfestival.com for details.

OCTOBER/NOVEMBER

Hosay – Observed by the Shiite Muslim community, Hosay takes place over three nights and one day: Flag Night, Small Hosay, Big Hosay, and a day procession that precedes the burial at sea of the tadjahs paraded through the streets. Tadjahs are ornate interpretations of the tomb of Hussein, martyred grandson of the prophet Muhammad. The tassa drumming heard on these days are possibly as big a draw to the public as the beauty of the procession. The name, Hosay, is an onomatopoeic rendition of the name of the man the festival commemorates – Hussein – which is often shouted out during the celebrations.

Ramleela – One of the most dramatic re-enactments on a calendar that features a great many. This one depicts scenes from the holy Hindu text, the Ramayana. Following the life of the deity Rama, it ends in the burning of Ravan, the demon king of the story. It is effectively a ten-day theatrical presentation, and announcements of Ramleela performances can be found in the local press. Typically, the festival is staged two weeks prior to the Hindu festival of Divali.

Divali – public holiday. Known as the Festival of Lights, the displays of deyas (earthen lamps) that adorn mandirs, homes and public spaces, symbolise the lighting of the path for the return of Rama from his exile in the forests of Ayodhya. It can, therefore, be described as the finale of the epic battle between good and evil that is at the centre of the Ramleela story (spoiler: good wins). Divali also celebrates Laxmi Ma, the Hindu goddess of prosperity. The metaphor of emerging from darkness into light is easily grasped by the uninitiated, and the often spectacular light shows (fireworks are increasingly popular) have made Divali perhaps the most widely appreciated by non-believers of all the Hindu festivals. Divali is celebrated in both private and public in Trinidad. The local press will carry details of the larger celebrations.

DECEMBER

25: Christmas Day – public holiday. Christian celebration commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, recognised as the son of God by Christianity. The day is traditionally marked by religious ceremonies, gift-giving, and large, celebratory meals. The latter two traditions being more visible than the first, and widely observed, irrespective of religious belief or upbringing.

26: Boxing Day – public holiday. A common holiday in countries celebrating Christmas, often a continuation of religious celebration (St. Stephen’s Day) or treated as the second day of Christmas. The Boxing Day tradition, however, is essentially secular and specific to the British Christmas tradition. Despite the pugilistic implications of the name, it actually refers to a charitable – now extinct – practice: the delivery a “Christmas box” to servants or tradesmen on the day after Christmas.

Note: If there isn’t a festival for you on this list, consider another Trinidadian pastime – being sceptical about festivals. There are few more reliable indicators of a pending celebration of importance than the appearance in the country’s newspapers of articles disputing the validity or historical significance of whichever holiday or tradition may be on the horizon.

By 

A team of of writers discovering Trinidad & Tobago for 25 years and counting!

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