This article was written by Peter Smith
Tuesday marked the culmination of the Carnival season, celebrated as Mardi Gras in the French-speaking world and Carnival in the rest of Continental Europe and throughout Latin America. Our Brazilian neighbors throw the world’s largest Carnival celebrations and other festivals dotting the Caribbean are an impressive show, to be sure. It would make sense then for Miami, home to so many Brazilians, Jamaicans, Trinis, Colombians, etc., to have a noteworthy Carnival celebration of our own. But we don’t. Instead, we take our cues from the rest of the United States and the Anglo world in being among the only places in the West, save for New Orleans and a few Midwest locales, not joining in on the party.
Admittedly, there are enviably grandiose Carnival celebrations in London and Toronto, but these were re-imported by Trinidadian and Jamaican immigrants. I say “re-imported,” of course, because the English-speaking world used to celebrate a variation of Carnival along with the rest of the Christian world. So what happened to our party?
Dating back to the 12th century, towns in the British Isles celebrated Shrove Tuesday on the final day of Shrovetide just before the start of the Lenten season. The word “shrove” is the past-tense of “shrive,” meaning to confess. Christians prepared for Lent by engaging in one final round of indulgence and succumbing to temptation before confessing their sins on the eve of Ash Wednesday. Shrove Tuesday is actually still celebrated today in much of the English-speaking world, but in a form much different than its original tradition. Today, Shrove Tuesday is also known as Pancake Tuesday and is celebrated with a pancake dinner, often in church basements or around dining room tables.
There used to be more to Shrove Tuesday than just pancakes, however. There used to be street festivals, music, dancing, and drinking, all centered around a mob football match held in the village streets and town squares. These festivities date back as far as the 1100s and, although they evolved independently from the Carnival traditions of Continental Europe, they closely resembled those celebrations. After all, if you’re preparing for forty days of fasting, abstinence, sacrifice, and penance, how else would you spend your final days of freedom if not by engaging in lecherous debauchery?
All the fun came to a halt in 1835 when the British Parliament passed the Highway Act. The Highway Act prohibited, among other things, playing football on public highways. In today’s context, this seems like a fair request: don’t play soccer on the highway, but it carried a slightly different meaning in those days. Highways referred to any public roads, of which there may have only been one or two in smaller towns. Highways almost always went straight through a town’s center and sometimes even included the village square. Playing football on public highways was quite common, as common as playing in a public park is today. Public highways were also likely the only space available to accommodate the large mob football matches and their accompanying festivities that characterized the Shrovetide season.
So when the Highway Act of 1835 banned football on public highways, it effectively also killed Shrove Tuesday.
The Highway Act became the law of the land in England, Scotland, Wales and all of Ireland. It also took effect in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. A decade after its passage, the Great Famine struck in Ireland, prompting nearly four million Irish to immigrate to the United States. They did not bring with them their Shrovetide traditions, which had been destroyed years earlier by the Highway Act, and so, as Irish culture shaped American life in the second half of the nineteenth century, there was no tradition of Shrovetide or Carnival or Mardi Gras left to build on. It never took hold in the United States.
There is still a smattering of nostalgia-laden Shrovetide celebrations throughout England, and they’re mostly in small villages so remote that public highways did not reach them in 1835. They’re a world away from Miami, but they offer an insight into what Carnival in Miami may have looked like if the Highway Act had not killed Shrovetide in the English-speaking world. To be fair, they probably by now would have been remolded in the image of Latin American Carnival. But instead, when immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean transformed Miami beginning in the 1950s, the new arrivals found no Shrove Tuesday here to mold.
Miami is billed as the Gateway to Latin America and the Capital of Latin America. It is a bilingual city: Spanish and English, often in that order. Yet, we do not participate in the single most important date on the social calendar of Latin America and the Spanish-speaking world.
Perhaps the new settlers of Miami will one day establish a Carnival tradition here or maybe those of us already here will finally say that enough is enough and we want in on the fun too. Until then, when your friends and families are sharing Carnival photos from around the world on Twitter and Instagram, remember to quietly curse the British Parliament and their Highway Act for our absence from what clearly looks to be a very fun time.
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