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Trinidad: a flow of festivals [updated for 2020]

This festival island constantly celebrates life, creativity, and diversity – Archbishop Desmond Tutu called T&T a “rainbow nation”. These are some of our most distinctive annual celebrations

Trinidad’s major 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, listed in alphabetical order.

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


Bocas Lit Fest (April/May)

The Trinidad & Tobago Literary Festival

With headliners like Jamaican Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings) and our own Earl Lovelace (his Salt won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1997), the festival brings together readers, writers, poets, and publishers from the Caribbean diaspora each April/May for readings, performances, workshops, discussions, book launches, film screenings, and the presentation of annual prizes for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry – all free and open to the public. Founded in 2011, and usually staged over the last week of April, the festival takes place at the National Library and the adjoining Old Fire Station in downtown Port of Spain. Booksellers’ stalls, space to eat plus open mic lunch hour sessions. Evening events at venues around the city. Outreach events continue through the year, both at home and at overseas book festivals, as do non-affiliated book launches, readings and lectures. bocaslitfest.com

Safiy St Clair competes at the Bocas Lit Fest's 2016 Poetry Slam. Photo courtesy Bocas Lit Fest

Safiy St Clair competes at the Bocas Lit Fest’s 2016 Poetry Slam. Photo courtesy Bocas Lit Fest

Carnival (February/March)

The Carnival season is massive (from just after Christmas until February/March, depending on when Lent and Easter fall each year) — like one very large buffet. You can sample all of it over multiple courses; just some of it, by confining yourself to a few things which appeal to you; or none at all (which means leaving the restaurant altogether, to keep the analogy going). We have a whole series of articles where you can learn more about each of the varied aspects of Trinidad Carnival. But in the meantime, here’s Carnival in a nutshell.

The Carnival 411

What’s all the fuss about?

What it is: the annual street festival on the two days before Ash Wednesday that takes over the capital, and all major towns. Indeed the whole country shuts down to party hearty.

How to survive it

Drink lots of water (and very measured doses of alcohol, if you are playing mas and want to keep up with the music and the locals), wear earplugs, trainers for walking long distances, and a mobile to call for a pick-up just in case of emergency (ie you get tired, drunk, or both). Of course, many ignore this advice and, for example, wear high-heel shoes on the road…

Playing a mas

The highlight for most visitors is actually getting down and dirty in the carnival. Literally. This means playing J’Ouvert, from the wee hours of Carnival Monday morning, covered in mud, oil, chocolate or body paint, dancing through the streets of Port of Spain to the sound of soca.

It’s all about the costumes, the pageantry, and the fetes… this is an all-out explosion of the senses, beginning with the all-inclusive band launches where the limitless food and drinks recall the hedonistic French masquerade balls in the 19th century that, in part, gave birth to this festival.

Among the maestros of the costume whose name goes down in the annals of carnival history is Peter Minshall, who invented the dancing mobile, which featured prominently at the opening ceremonies for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the 1996 Games in Atlanta, as well as the 1994 World Cup. He took France by storm when he collaborated with composer and record producer Jean-Michel Jarre who is known for his outdoor performances featuring lights, laser displays and fireworks. Minshall’s dancing mobiles and other characters appeared at Bastille Day celebrations in 1990 before an audience of two million, and at the 1995 UNESCO Concert for Tolerance at the Eiffel Tower, where 1.5 million attended.

The music

From as early as July and August when the big costume bands have their launches, you will hear the latest soca hits being played on the radio and in the fetes. On Carnival Friday, the artistes compete for huge cash prizes by performing at the International Soca Monarch, which is broadcast live on national TV and streamed on the internet. Calypso, meanwhile — soca’s more serious parent — is best heard at calypso tents, numerous competitions through the season, and at Dimanche Gras on Carnival Sunday.

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Steelpan

This is the home of the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century, the steelpan. After the British colonial authorities banned the beating of African drums, the working class turned to the drums in which oil was stored. A highlight of the Carnival is Panorama, the battle of the steel orchestras for huge cash prizes and bragging rights. In the weeks before the finals, panyards across the country are filled with spectators and supporters listening to the players perfect their performance. The Queen’s Park Savanah’s Big Stage is the arena where the battle is fought.

Carnival Tuesday. Photo by RAPSO Imaging

Christmas

Trinidadians are very serious about Christmas. As with Carnival, there are events which start in July, while the September launch of parang season always means that Christmas is drawing near. Parang is Trinidad’s Christmas music, with origins in Venezuela, and featuring instruments like the cuatro, box bass, and maracas, and lyrics usually sung in Spanish. Head to Paramin for the Parang Festival each December. Choral and singing groups — the Marionettes Chorale, QED, the Lydians, the Love Movement, Southernaires, and more — take centre stage at this time of year, offering up Christmas shows that are traditions for many; while calypsonians and soca parang stalwarts Scrunter, Crazy, Kenny J, and Relator also sing the strains of the season. There are also cherished free events like Carols by Candelight and performances in the Botanical Gardens.

Los Alumnos de San Juan singing parang. Photo courtesy triniscene.com

COCO Dance festival (October)

Organised by the Contemporary Choreographers Collective, this annual festival (in October) brings together dancers and choreographers from around the region and North America to collaborate with the local dance communities, including students of the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Performances take place at venues around Port of Spain and on the streets, or the market…

The COCO Dance Festival at Queen’s Hall. Photo by Karen Johnstone courtesy The COCO Dance Festival

Corpus Christi (June, 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.

Easter (with public holidays)

The long Easter weekend features hot cross buns, horse racing at the Santa Rosa track in Arima (Trinidad), and goat and crab races in Tobago’s Mt. Pleasant (Monday) and Buccoo (Tuesday). Public holidays are observed on Good Friday, and Easter Sunday (with the public holiday falling on the Monday). Look out for the beating of the Good Friday bobolee, an effigy of Judas Iscariot. These days, you’re just as likely to see effigies of politicians, notorious characters of all kinds and occasionally some very specific ones representing particularly bad ex-boyfriends.

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.

Emancipation (August, public holiday)

The Emancipation Day public holiday is celebrated on 1 August to commemorate the end of slavery in the British colonies (1838), but events take place before and after the big day. Enjoy African art exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, performances (music, dance, and theatre, featuring local and international acts), religious and spiritual observances, trade shows, and a vibrant street procession (including towering moko jumbies, and a flambeaux-lit Canboulay procession in the evening), in addition to countless events and activities nationwide. There are two significant street parade days: the Emancipation Day Parade on 1 August, and the Emancipation Steelband Street Parade on the first Saturday in August (Laventille Steelband Festival Foundation, Eastern Main Road). The Lidj Yasu Omowale Emancipation Village at the Queen’s Park Savannah is the centre of the activities, which also hosts craft and clothing stalls. Emancipation Support Committee: emancipationtt.com, 628-5008

The flambeaux street procession is a hallmark of Emancipation celebrations. Photo by Maria Nunes

The flambeaux street procession is a hallmark of Emancipation celebrations. Photo by Maria Nunes

European and African film festivals

Film buffs will want to keep their eyes peeled for the European Film Festival and Africa Film Festival, which typically happen in May, though both have occurred at other times of year.

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Independence Day

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.

Ganga Dhaara River Festival in Blanchisseuse, Trinidad. Photo: Edison Boodoosingh

Ganga Dhara River Festival in Blanchisseuse, Trinidad. Photo: Edison Boodoosingh

Hosay

The exquisitely beautiful tadjahs that represent the tomb of Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, make this festival a hit every year. 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 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. Five tadjahs (made of bamboo, wood, paper and tinsel) are paraded through the streets of St James — and other sites around the country like Cedros, Couva, Curepe, and Tunapuna — in commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussain in the year 680 AD. These miniature temples range in height from 3–6m/10–30ft. The procession is accompanied by the beating of tassa drums and two standards in the shape of half-moons — one red symbolising the blood of Hussain that was shed at Karbala, and one green for the poisoning of his brother Hassan. Observances takes place over three nights (Flag Night, Small Hosay, Big Hosay). Dates vary each year according to the moon.

Hosay. Photo by Lisa Fernandez

Independence Day (August, 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.

Photo by RAPSO Imaging

Indian Arrival Day (May, 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

La Divina Pastora & Siparee Mai (March/April)

In a church of the same name in Siparia stands a dark-skinned statue of the Virgin Mary as La Divina Pastora (the Divine Shepherdess), and site site of 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 recognise her as Durga and Lakshmi and who are among the pilgrims who visit the church on the Thursday (night) and Friday before Easter, offering acts of devotion. Most of all, she is just “mother”. The church welcomes all wishing to pay their respects.

Siparee/Supari Mai or the Black Madonna/Virgin at the Church of La Divina Pastora (the Divine Shepherdess) in Siparia. Photo: Ariann Thompson/MEP Publishers

Siparee/Supari Mai or the Black Madonna/Virgin at the Church of La Divina Pastora (the Divine Shepherdess) in Siparia. Photo: Ariann Thompson/MEP Publishers

Orisha celebrations & observances

During the course of the year, several festivals honour African traditions in Trinidad: the Obatala Festival (Woodbrook in January); Ancestral Egungun Festival (Febeau Village, San Juan in February); Yoruba Village Drum Festival (Port of Spain in June); the Oshun River Festival (Salybia in August); and the Orisha Family Day (usually begining at Lopinot Junction in March), with a traditional procession in which devotees accompany Orisha drummers from Lopinot Junction to ancestral lands for a day of rituals and prayer.

Oshun River Festival, Trinidad. Photo: Edison Boodoosingh

Oshun River Festival celebrations, Trinidad. Photo: Edison Boodoosingh

Phagwa or Holi (March)

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.

Phagwa (Holi). Photo by Ziad Joseph

Prime Minister’s Best Village Competition

Culminating each September, this national competition keeps folk traditions alive in local communities as counties vie for various titles. Some of the nation’s finest performing arts professionals make their start here. The competition encompasses indigenous arts and crafts, Carnival traditions, cuisine, dance, drama, folklore and storytelling, music, sports, and the selection of a Best Village Queen, La Reine Rivé.

Best Village competition. Photo by Edison Boodoosingh

A dancer and drummers in action at the Best Village competition. Photo by Edison Boodoosingh

Ramleela & Divali

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 triumph of good over evil and the return of Lord Rama from his exile in the forests of Ayodhya: thousands of flickering deyas light his way. It is celebrated by the whole country, and everyone is welcome at the nightly lighting of deyas (clay pots with coconut oil and a wick), on often intricate bamboo designs in parks and East Indian communities. Some families and neighbourhoods go all out and the sight of thousands of deyas and coloured lights decorating homes is something to behold. Preparations and rituals typically last five days, but the main festival night coincides with the darkest new moon night of the Hindu calendar, usually between mid-October and mid-November. You will see families dressed in fabulous saris and shalwar kurtas on Divali night to light deyas and perform puja (prayers) to Lakshmi, the goddess of fertility and prosperity. Afterwards, a feast with lots of curried vegetables and roti, with Indian sweets as dessert and takeaway follows. Felicity in south Trinidad is among the most popular venues.

Divali in Felicity, Trinidad. Photo: Ariann Thompson

Divali in Felicity, Trinidad. Photo: Ariann Thompson

Ramleela

Ramleela. Photo by CaféMoka

Ramleela. Photo by CaféMoka

The Ramleela, theatrical re-enactments of stories from the Hindu scriptures (the Ramayana) takes place just before Divali (usually in October). Also known as Ramdilla and Ramlila, this 10-day outdoor festival dramatises the life of Lord Ram with colourful costumes, music and dancing. It ends with an epic and explosive finale in the burning of Ravan, the demon king of the story. The best-known productions are held in Couva and Felicity, in central and south Trinidad.

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Indian Arrival Day

 

Spiritual or Shouter Baptist Liberation Day (March, 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. Learn more here.

Santa Rosa Festival and First People’s Heritage Week

Santa Rosa Festival (August)

With origins in both Trinidad’s First Peoples and Catholic traditions, the Santa Rosa Festival in Arima 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 — alongside Roman Catholics. Other observances include sharing traditional Amerindian foods, cultural and spiritual rituals and commemorations, as well as church services.

First Peoples Heritage Week (October)

In 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

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.

Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival (ttff)

This September festival started in 2006 and is now the second largest of its kind in the region. It boasts a packed schedule of dramatic, documentary, short, and animated filmsm with homegrown talent competing with regional and diaspora filmmakers for the top prizes. Screenings take place at MovieTowne locations, UWI, and other venues during the festival, plus workshops and educational initiatives, development programmes, and community film screenings all year long. ttfilmfestival.com


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.

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