Researchers have persistently yet fruitlessly sought to determine the exact origin of the word Carnival. Some state that it comes from the term 'carnevelarium', which in Latin defined the religious prohibition of eating meat during Lent, whilst others relate it to the concept of carrus navalis (boat on wheels) which the God Baco rode on during Roman Bacchanalia.
Nevertheless, historians agree in their definition of these celebrations as a pagan festivity that dates from before Christianity, with rituals and customs that would later be adopted by Christians. Whatever its etymology, experts state that this was a celebration that went against pre-established rules and social standards to become an expression of freedom, joy and wantonness.
Carnival endured relentless religious and monarchic attempts to eradicate the celebration during the Middle Ages and has lived on to this day. It was in the 16th century when it was introduced to Tenerife by the Spaniards and the Portuguese on their way to the New Continent and American colonies.
According to travellers and chroniclers from that time, the Carnivals in the 18th century were a celebration for both the upper classes in their balls and banquets, and for the people in their more popular parties. They would all celebrate Carnival despite the religious and civil ban on holding balls and wearing masks in the public thoroughfare.
During the 19th century, new kinds of festive events emerged (street races, exhibitions and contests), in addition to the traditional dances. This was also the time when the custom known as "tapaderas" became more popular, when high-class women would mingle with the lower echelons of society thanks to the anonymity provided by their masks. Historians believe this tradition to have preceded what is known as the "sheets masquerade" and the "abanador" celebrations, which became popular at the beginning of the next century.
During the first few decades of the 20th century, the number of tourists who were drawn to Tenerife by the Carnival grew. The prosperity of the 1920s favoured the celebration to the point that, in 1925, the first Carnival Programme was established by the City Council of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
It was then that the simple tradition of wearing masks gave way to a variety of carnival groups: rondallas, comparsas, estudiantinas and murgas. The costumes and masks became more sophisticated and also evolved in terms of quality, which gave rise to the first competitions.
The Spanish Civil War and the ensuing dictatorship quashed these celebrations which by that time had become deeply rooted in Tenerife's society. Despite the repression, clandestine celebrations were held in the privacy of peoples' homes.
In 1961, the celebration of Carnival was once again officially accepted under the euphemistic name of Winter Festivities, which in 1967 were declared a Celebration of National Tourist Interest. With the arrival of democracy, the Carnival recovered its name and gradually became the ultimate popular festivity of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, which was finally declared a Celebration of International Tourist Interest in 1980.
Since then, having moved far on from its presumably religious origins, Tenerife's Carnival is considered by some to be the world's second most popular carnival after Río de Janeiro in Brazil, thanks to its flamboyance, the quality of its contests, street parties and concerts, and the authenticity of its street vibe.