History of the Olinda Carnival and its giant dolls

The city of Olinda-PE is recognised for its history, natural beauty, cultural heritage, whether through the colonial architecture of its churches and mansions or its cultural manifestations.

The year 1932 marks the beginning of the use of giant dolls in the Olindense carnival, through the calunga, by the Clube de Alegoria e Crítica o Homem da Meia-Noite (Man of the Midnight).

Giant puppets at the Olinda carnival in Pernambuco
Giant puppets at the Olinda carnival in Pernambuco

It covers the 1980s, a period that marks the spread of giant puppets in the city’s carnival, and the 2000s, when the calunga of the Midnight Man was recognised as an Official Symbol of the City Hall.

And it ends with the official recognition of the Clube de Alegoria e Crítica Homem da Meia-Noite (Allegory Club and Midnight Man Criticism) as Living Heritage of the State of Pernambuco in 2006.

Giant dolls are understood here as cultural objects used by carnival associations to construct narratives and personalities immortalised in the collective memory, that is, these giant dolls are attributed a symbolic charge that moves revellers on the days of revelry.

 The practice of celebrating carnival in Brazil began in the 17th century with the games of entrudos.

Entrudos were games common in some Portuguese villages in which people doused each other with water.

In Brazil there were two kinds of entrudos: 

  1. The familiar took place in a more reserved way, only among family members and friends.
  2. The popular took place in the streets, with the participation of all people, without distinction of social class.

However, over the years the game was re-signified by the practitioners, where other elements became part of the game, such as rotten eggs, flour and other substances that displeased the local elites.

In this perspective, the attempt to trivialise/criminalise entrudo by groups linked to the elites aimed at replacing this game based on a civilising project for the country.

It is in this context that there will be a rupture between the carnivals of the elite and the poor.

Conheça a história dos bonecos gigantes de Olinda

See also Olinda has valuable colonial houses, architecture, history and carnival

Despite this split, the entrudo remained and other ways of playing carnival emerged, which would assume a prominent role with regard to popular urban festivities in our country.

Beginning in the 1870s and intensifying in the first decades of the republican regime in the country, the carnival festival followed paths that led it, definitively, to be experienced and socially recognised as the great urban, public and popular festival held in Brazil in the present century.

With regard to particular forms of carnival celebrations, we can mention the cities of Recife and Olinda where the formation of carnival troupes, clubs and blocks takes place.

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, rocked by the rhythm of frevo, different social agents in the city of Recife articulated themselves and started to create associations to celebrate the days of revelry.

The troças carnavalescas were more popular associations, whose parades took place in a simple way, where participants paraded through the streets on foot, accompanied by an orchestra of musicians and a banner that symbolised the identity element of the group.

Recife’s carnival clubs held more organised parades in which participants wore costumes.

Some clubs used allegories in their parades.

The cars were decorated according to the theme devised by the group. These clubs came to be called the Allegory and Criticism Club, as they satirised some everyday or political fact.

There was a commission to evaluate the allegories, if they did not follow the regulations, they would be prevented from following the parade.

Geralmente, esta forma de brincadeira era mais comum à elite, devido aos custos elevados para a confecção das fantasias e adereços.

Finally, the street blocks, popularly called lyrical blocks, organisations in which the musicians used stick and string instruments, whose melodies sang the frevo song. 

These ways of playing carnival also functioned as a political and symbolic dispute between the elite and the poorer population.

 In the city of Recife in the 1920s, disputes ranged from the quality of costumes and props to the number of people accompanying the parades, as well as the demarcation of places, by the public authorities, destined for such groups to carry out their parades and the debate about female participation in the blocos.

During the formation of nation states it was necessary to create symbols capable of uniting people around representations, such as language, anthems, the flag.

The intention was, through patriotic elements, to build a sense of belonging to that place. In this sense, the State began to choose cultural goods, practices and manifestations capable of contributing to the creation of a national identity, as they would assume a character of tradition within these societies.

However, often “traditions” that seem or are considered old are quite recent, if not invented”. 

In the historical process in which the associations began to incorporate the giant dolls into the Olinda carnival and how these, due to their appropriation, were used as an identity instrument of the City of Olinda.

This makes us think about these giants from the perspective of the fields of heritage, memory and identity.

Conceived as a group’s heritage, the giant puppets function as the materialisation of all the social relations and practices that surround the organisation of a carnival group. The giant doll functions as the identity element capable of bringing people together, especially those who live near its headquarters.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the city of Olinda already had several carnival troupes recognised for the quality of their parades, such as: the Clube Lenhadores de Olinda (1907), the Troça Carnavalesca Mista Cariri (1921), the Troça Carnavalesca Prato Misterioso (1925), among others.

However, none of these organisations were represented by giant puppets, but rather by banners. It was precisely from the rupture of one of these organisations that the figure of the giant dolls emerged in the city of Olinda.

The use of giant puppets in religious festivities was common, such as in processions and in puppet theatre, known in Pernambuco as mamulengos.

However, the use of giant dolls in the celebration of carnival parades in the state of Pernambuco occurred in Belém de São Francisco, in 1918, with the creation of the Zé Pereira doll.

In Olinda the giant doll would only appear in 1932 with the foundation of the, initially,  Troça Carnavalesca Homem da Meia-Noite. This is the result of a dissidence of the Troça Carnavalesca Mista Cariri, which officially opened the carnival in the city of Olinda.

According to the information obtained from the association’s website, the defeated slate in the 1931 election decided to create a new carnival troupe that would take to the streets before the Troça Carnavalesca Mista Cariri, whose parade always took place at 4 am from Saturday to Sunday carnival.

This demonstrates the dispute over symbolic power between the organisations.

On the founding of the Midnight Man Allegory and Criticism Club:

The date of birth of the first giant of Olinda is 2 February 1932, the day of Iemanjá. The certificate records half a dozen fathers and no mothers: Benedito Bernardino da Silva, Luciano Anacleto de Queiroz, Cosme José dos Santos, Manoel José dos Santos and Eliodoro Pereira da Silva. The most famous of the carnival giants has a name guided by the hands of the clock: the Midnight Man.

By reading this excerpt, we realise  an association of the association with candomblé through the date of its foundation. This relationship can be justified by the nomenclature attributed to the giant doll, called “calunga”.

Calunga represents small wooden dolls used during the religious maracatu nação parades. Another aspect to be mentioned is the absence of female participation in the foundation of the organisation. The founders were residents of the city of Olinda.

Opening of the Olinda carnival with the three main giant puppets, O Homem da Meia Noite, A Mulher do Dia and O Menino da Tarde (The Midnight Man, The Woman of the Day and The Afternoon Boy).
Opening of the Olinda carnival with the three main giant puppets, O Homem da Meia Noite, A Mulher do Dia and O Menino da Tarde.

Despite the lack of resources, given the profession of its founders (bookbinders, wall painters, carpenters and shoemakers), the group did not want to make the effort to invest in the construction of allegories for the parades after 1932, reconfiguring its typology and renaming itself the Clube de Alegoria e Crítica Homem da Meia-Noite. 

The time chosen to mark the rivalry was zero hour from Saturday to Sunday.

There are two theories that justify the choice of this schedule:

  1. The first theory is based on the showing of a film called “The Midnight Thief”, where the character, well-dressed in a tuxedo and top hat, came to life after emerging from inside a clock to carry out the robberies, always at midnight.
  2. The second theory concerns a mysterious, elegant man who always strolled the streets of the city of Olinda at midnight. He entered the houses of the maidens to flirt with them.

The first two parades of Homem da Meia-Noite, which took place in 1932 and 1933, characterised the group as a carnival troupe due to the simplicity of its procession that had a banner with an embroidered clock marking zero hour, that is, midnight, in addition to a giant calunga over 3.5 metres high made of wood, paper and gum weighing over 60 kilos.

The calunga, as the doll is called, was wearing a green and white tuxedo and a black top hat.

Due to lack of resources, Homem da Meia-Noite did not parade during the carnivals of the years 1950 to 1953, returning in 1954, with the help of the Olinda City Hall under the management of Mayor Alfredo Lopes, who started to allocate funds for the parades.

Since then the Midnight Man has become a reference in the City, drawing crowds.

Homem da Meia-Noite was for a long time the only carnival organisation in the city of Olinda represented by a giant puppet.

Only in 1967 would the Carnivalesque Troça Mulher do Dia appear, represented by a doll that would be the wife of the Midnight Man and, later, the Menino do Tarde in 1974, symbolising the fruit of this marriage.

Today the opening of one of Brazil’s most beautiful carnivals, that of Olinda, began with a procession of the city’s three main giant puppets: 

  • The Midnight Man (1932)
  • The Woman of the Day (1967)
  • The Afternoon Boy (1974)

The 1980s was the period of growth of these characters in the city’s carnival, especially due to the work of artisans in the making of giant dolls.

A fact that shows that the tradition of giant dolls in Olinda is something recent.

In 2006, the Clube de Alegoria e Crítica Homem da Meia-Noite was recognised as Living Heritage of the State of Pernambuco, which demonstrates the importance of the institution, symbolised by the calunga, for local culture.

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