It has been said that the most remote origins of Carnival are found in ancient Sumer and Egypt, where pompous fiestas honoring Apis the Ox, god of fertility, were celebrated about 5.000 years ago.
This celebration was scattered later throughout the Roman Empire where diverse celebrations performed in Greece and Rome in occasion of spring and New Year ’s Eve persisted, such as the “bacanales” honoring Baco, god of wine – and the “saturnalias” honoring Saturn, god of planting and harvesting.
During the celebration for Baco, the supreme priest of this god led a ship over wheels called “carrus navalis” (marine car). Many agree this is the origin of the word “carnival”. Other people assure this term comes from the Italian words “carnel valel” that means “good-bye to flesh”, which perfectly links with the expression “carnis tollendus” (flesh that must be removed), referring to the need to get rid of the flesh previously to Lent, Ash Wednesday.
The pagan celebrations of the ancient Roman Empire related with the arrival of the New Year and spring persisted even after the triumph of Christianity with the shape of Carnival. In a religious sense, this celebration was the last opportunity people had to strengthen the body with abundant food and drinks before starting the Lent season, which represented fasting and penance.
In America our forefathers celebrated it already before the arrival of the Europeans. During these celebrations, the New Year was received while requesting fertility and harvest abundance to the gods. After the conquest and the imposition of Catholicism, these ancient celebrations were absorbed by the European celebration of Carnival, originating a popular demonstration with a numberless of colors that correspond to the characteristics of identity in each place.
In the specific case of Cuenca, Carnival presents features that make it unique, either because of the exquisite typical gastronomy of the region or the customs that persist among some of its inhabitants.
One of them, that has practically disappeared but it is attempted to be rescued, is the one known as Thursday of godfathers and godmothers. The purpose of this tradition that used to start two weeks before Carnival (on a Thursday), was to strengthen the bonds of friendship and solidarity. The godfathers and godmothers were chosen depending on the level of relationship or friendship with them. The chosen person received a “guagua de pan” (girlish-shaped piece of bread), wrapped in a traditional way – like a tamale – over a tray filled with flower petals. Next to it, it was usual to give a “present” that could have been sweets, eggs, a chicken, etc.
The ritual continued on the “chosen ones” side, whom considered themselves committed with such “honor”, therefore they offered a glass of delicious “mistela” (liquor with macerated fruit) and they promised to attend the celebration of carnival at the home of those requesting the godfather or godmother condition.
Another very attractive element of the Cuencano Carnival is the abundance of food during this celebration. A numberless of culinary delights are prepared by families that get ready to spend three days of amusement at the country or in the city. It is a famous thing, for example, the classic bread from Cuenca that is kneaded and baked previously to the days of celebration. The exquisite peach, quince and fig marmalade, produced with much care and patience by many housewives that continue the tradition. And of course, pork is present in countless dishes that become a delight to many, such as the “mote pata” prepared with peeled corn, pork meat, bacon and sausage, stewed with squash toasted and grounded seeds. It is also possible to find delights such as “chicharrones” (pork crackling), “morcillas” (sausages), “hornado” (baked pork), “sancocho” (parboiled pork meat), “mote sucio” (cooked corn scrambled with pork lard), “fritada” (fried pork meat) and “tostado” (toasted corn) everywhere during this celebration.
About the Carnival game, it’s been said that playing with water is a custome that comes from Spain. There are testimonies that in the past, in some towns in Spain, people used to play spreading water to each other. But not always was water the main element in the Carnival celebrations in Cuenca. Old rich families used to prepare all kind of products - long time before Carnival – such as confetti, colored fragrant water, special powders, etc. Big parties were organized with a colorful display of food, music and costumes. In the other hand, people on popular quarters used to celebrate getting completely wet, saying that water during Carnival, could cure all sort of diseases. Then, dancing and drinking the typical “canelazos” (cinnamon water boiled with sugar, fruit and sugar cane liquor) was always part of the party.
To summarize it all, Carnival in Cuenca is a synonym of enjoyment and fun; a celebration where games, music, tradition and pleasure for good food is present. This beautiful city, watered by four rivers, is the perfect place to rest and enjoy on dates like this.