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Trinidad: A Flow of Festivals

A moko jumbie dances overhead in Trinidad Carnival. Photo: Maria Nunes

A moko jumbie dances overhead in Trinidad Carnival. Photo: Maria Nunes

Trinidad’s Major Annual Festivals & Holidays

This festival island constantly celebrates life, creativity, and diversity — Archbishop Desmond Tutu called T&T a “rainbow nation” when he visited in the 1980s (though he gave his native South Africa the same description as well). Indeed, every day’s a celebration in Trinidad — or so it can appear at times when our many ethnic groups and religions have given us such a wide array of festival and holidays. These are some of our most distinctive annual celebrations.

And don’t forget to visit our Calendar for an updated list of the current year’s holidays and events.

Carnival

Undoubtedly the island’s largest and most famous festival, showcasing some of the nation’s most distinctive artforms: calypso, soca, steelband, limbo and others. The island’s signature festival includes fetes, music, dance and a two-day parade of bands in towns across the island. For the full low-down, see our Carnival articles.

Phagwa (Holi)

Each March the Hindu community recognises the beginning of the Indian spring and the Hindu New Year. A major hallmark of the festival is the vegetable dye abir, a vegetable dye (commonly a distinctive purple) that Phagwa (or Holi) participants spray over one another as part of the revelry. Celebrations also include chowtal singing and dancing competitions. (If you attend a Phagwa celebration make sure to wear old clothes!) Especially popular is the Children’s Phagwa celebration hosted each year at the Tunapuna Hindu School, while the Aranguez Savannah is another popular venue for these celebrations of rebirth and renewal.

Orisa Family Day

A traditional procession in which devotees accompany Orisa (also spelt Orisha) drummers from Lopinot Junction to ancestral lands for a day of rituals and prayer. Usually held in March.

Spiritual (Shouter) Baptist Liberation Day (public holiday)

Celebrated on 30 March, this day commemorates the abolition of the colonial-era British-instituted Shouters Prohibition Ordinance, which forbade participation in this African-influenced religion. The Baptists are also sometimes referred to as just Shouter Baptists or as Shango Baptists.

Bocas Lit Fest: The Trinidad & Tobago Literary Festival (April)

The five-day annual Trinidad & Tobago Literary Festival brings together readers, writers, poets, and publishers from the Caribbean diaspora in a celebration in late April of books and writing, with readings, workshops, performances, discussions, and the presentation of annual prizes for fiction, non-fiction and poetry (bocaslitfest.com).

La Divina Pastora & Siparee Mai

A church of the same name houses a statue of the Virgin Mary as La Divina Pastora (the Divine Shepherdess) in Siparia, and one of the most unique Trinidadian commemorations. On her feast day, the second Sunday after Easter, the “Miracle Mother” is decorated with flowers, dressed in white, and processed through the streets, followed by celebrations open to all. Many miracles have been attributed to her by her many devotees — not just Catholics, but those of many faiths. She is Siparee Mai (mother of Siparia) to believers in the Hindu community, who are among the pilgrims who visit the church on the Thursday (night) and Friday before Easter, offering acts of devotion. The church welcomes all wishing to pay their respects.

Indian Arrival Day (public holiday)

This national public holiday (30 May) commemorates the arrival of the first indentured labourers from India on the ship Fatel Razack in 1845, following the Emancipation of African slaves in 1838. More than 140,000 Indians were recruited over the next 70 years to work Trinidad’s plantations after emancipation left them without labour. Communities re-enact the arrival of this first group on beaches around the country, and outstanding members of Trinidad’s Indian community are rewarded for their contributions. The Divali Nagar site just outside Chaguanas is a focal point.

Divali Nagar dancers. Photo by Chris Anderson

Divali Nagar dancers. Photo by Chris Anderson

Corpus Christi (public holiday)

On this public holiday (often held in June, but which varies according to the religious calendar), Roman Catholics process through Port of Spain as a public profession of faith, a practice dating back to Spanish colonial days. It is a traditional day for planting crops, as it is believed that it always rains on Corpus Christi.

Emancipation Day (public holiday)

Celebrated on 1 August to commemorate the emancipation of African slaves in 1838. It’s marked with street processions (including towering moko jumbies, and a flambeaux-lit Canboulay procession in the evening); religious and spiritual observances; cultural shows; films and lectures; exhibitions of African art; a trade exposition; performances (featuring local and international acts); and countless events and activities nationwide. The Lidj Yasu Omowale Emancipation Village in Port of Spain is the centre of the activities, which also hosts craft and clothing stalls.

Dancers at the Emancipation Village. Photographer: Anthony Harris

Dancers at the Emancipation Village. Photographer: Anthony Harris

Santa Rosa Festival and First People’s Heritage Week

Celebrated in August, the month-long syncretic First Peoples/Catholic Santa Rosa Festival commemorates the death of Santa Rosa de Lima, the Roman Catholic patron saint of the New World. It begins with the firing of a cannon on 1 August from Calvary Hill in Arima, and culminates on the Sunday following her feast day (23 August), when her statue is borne through the streets of Arima in a procession by members of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community (also known as the Karina or Carib community) — led by the Carib Queen — and Roman Catholics. Other observances include sharing traditional Amerindian foods, cultural and spiritual rituals and commemorations, as well as church services. In mid-October, the Community celebrates First Peoples Heritage Week, including academic conferences, ritual smoke and water ceremonies, street processions, and other recognition and celebration of the island’s First Peoples heritage. santarosafirstpeoples.org

An Amerindian smoke ceremony in Arima, Trinidad. Photo: CafeMoka

An Amerindian smoke ceremony in Arima, Trinidad. Photo: CafeMoka

Independence Day (public holiday)

Celebrated on 31 August, this was the day when Trinidad and Tobago became independent from Britain in 1962. It starts with a parade of the various protective services; later, national awards are given to deserving citizens, and fireworks light up the Queen’s Park Savannah. There are often also huge concerts and an Independence Day Cycling Classic.

Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival (ttff)

This September festival started in 2006 and is now the second largest of its kind in the region. It showcases a range of dramatic, documentary, short, and animated films from or about Trinidad & Tobago, the Caribbean, and the diaspora, and hosts a number of workshops, educational initiatives, and development programmes. www.trinidadandtobagofilmfestival.com

Republic Day (public holiday)

Marks the adoption on 24 September, 1976 of a new republican constitution (in which a President replaced the Queen of England as the head of state, and the islands became a republic within the Commonwealth), and the first meeting of the republican parliament. Events include the Open Water Classic at Maracas Bay and the Republic Day Cycling Challenge and 5K Fun Run.

Ramleela & Divali (public holiday)

Celebrated in October or November according to the moon, this Hindu lunar festival of lights honours Mother Lakshmi (goddess of light, beauty, riches and love) and celebrates the return of Lord Rama from exile: thousands of flickering deyas light his way. Felicity in south Trinidad is among the most popular venues. In the nine days leading up to Divali, Trinidadians of all ethnicities and religions visit the Divali Nagar site in Chaguanas, and hundreds take part in the ritual lighting of deyas at dusk on the day itself. The Ramleela, theatrical re-enactments of stories from the Hindu scriptures, takes place just before Divali (usually in October). Also known as Ramdilla and Ramlila, this nine-day festival dramatises the life of Lord Ram with music and dancing. The best-known productions are held in Couva and Felicity, in central and south Trinidad. Hindus across Trinidad attend the outdoor spectacles, which involve bright costumes and an epic finale.

Divali in Felicity, Trinidad. Photo: Ariann Thompson

Divali in Felicity, Trinidad. Photo: Ariann Thompson

Best Village

This national competition keeps folk traditions alive in local communities, and is where some of the nation’s finest performing arts professionals make their start. Ten counties vie for various titles in the Prime Minister’s Best Village trophy. Action heats up at mid-year, and encompasses all indigenous local culture — dance, drama, music, storytelling, folklore, Carnival traditions, food and farming products, sports, and the selection of a Best Village Queen, La Reine Rivé.

Eid-ul-Fitr (public holiday)

Eid marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Muslim year, according to the moon), a period of prayer and fasting from dawn to dusk. Morning communal worship in mosques and large open spaces throughout the country is followed by alms-giving; people visit family and friends, exchanging gifts and sweets. Hospitality and meals are shared with family, friends and neighbours of all backgrounds. Sawine, a milk-based vermicelli dessert, is a holiday favourite among the many sweets on offer. The date of this festival varies, since it depends on the sighting of the new moon.

Hosay

A local incarnation of the Islamic Muharram observances, the festival commemorates the martyrdom of Hussain, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, and later murder of his brother Hassan. The lively three-night celebrations (Flag Night, Small Hosay, Big Hosay) culminate in a day procession of exquisitely made tadjahs (fanciful replicas of the tomb of Hussein) carried through the streets to the thunder of tassa drums; they are eventually cast into the sea. Popular venues for watching and joining Hosay activities are St James, Curepe, Tunapuna, Couva, and Cedros. Dates vary each year according to the moon. In 2009, for example, Hosay happened twice: in January and in December.

Tassa Drummers at Hosay. Photogaph by Edison Boodoosingh

Tassa Drummers at Hosay. Photogaph by Edison Boodoosingh

Though not all of these are official public holidays, there are other religious and non-denominational days that have been designated holidays. Other public holidays: New Year’s Day (January 1), Good Friday and Easter Monday, Labour Day (June 19), Christmas Day and Boxing Day (December 25–6). And don’t forget to visit our Calendar for an updated list of the current year’s holidays and events.

By 

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

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