While both carnivals and fairs center around entertainment, celebration, and fun, carnivals are considered to be shows that travel and fairs are centered around specific towns and can change from place to place.

A fair located in one town might be different from a fair in another town. A carnival will most likely be similar as the show travels from one place to the next.

Carnival vs Fair
Carnival vs Fair

Carnivals: Celebration Before the Famine

The word carnival comes from Latin and refers to the celebration of abundance before the time of fasting, specifically abstaining from meat, around major religious holidays, the primary one being Lent.

In cities such as New Orleans in the United States and in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, carnival celebrations prior to Lent have become a time of hedonistic pleasure.

Costumes and parades to celebrate the feast before the famine of Lent may not be currently tightly tied to an overabundance of food, wine, sex, and merry-making as found in ancient times, but the joy of these festivals has spread across the world.

For example, you don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy Mardi Gras specials at a Cajun restaurant in the United States.

Aerial view of a carnival
Aerial view of a carnival

Carnivals As Traveling Entertainment

During the World’s Fair in Chicago at the end of the 19th century, there was a great focus on the history of the traveling carnival. These traveling shows included

  • games for children
  • animal acts
  • rides and thrill acts

Less savory carnivals may have included a traveling show of “freaks” or human oddities, as well as burlesque shows at a certain hour.

Many of these shows traveled on wagons across the United States when the weather was fair. A large carnival may have included a large center ring where trapeze artists showed off their skills.

However, a large carnival with many animals and a spot for folks to sit were generally more of a circus that stuck to a circuit of larger towns.

Depending on the size of the carnival, the movement of the wagons through small cities across the country would bring folks together.

Many locals put these celebratory times to good use; a farmer might save their best cheeses or a brewer their best beers to sell when the carnival was in town.

Ultimately, the carnival would move on.

The folks associated with tunning carnival shows were known as carnies.

The technicians who ran the machines and set up the games did not always have the most savory reputation.

When the carnival came to town, everyone came out to play and have fun. For many young locals, exposure to the glamour of carnival characters paired with alcohol could lead to fights and other hazardous behavior.

Additionally, there were some carnies who were not the fairest purveyors of fun and contests. A rigged contest, paired with a poor prize, could cause hard feelings and unpleasant words.

There are still carnivals that travel across the country, but most of these are related to charities and rely on small rides and games of chance.

There are some larger traveling ride establishments, but most of the biggest rides are permanently placed in amusement parks.

The modern amusement parks offers a lot of the fun of the older carnival without the unsavory aspects that a traveling carnival was known for.

Fairs Have a Home

While carnivals have a sense of urgency related to the time of want, a fair is a celebration of bounty and local skills.

state fair

At a carnival, you might set up to sell your wares or give away handicrafts during a game of chance, but for a fair you would present your finest piece to be judged by an expert in the hopes of winning a ribbon.

Contributors to the first State Fair of New York in Syracuse in 1841 would be able to show off their finest livestock or quilt for judging. As technology advances, many fairs also include the work of local photographers and painters.

The livestock judging in a state fair can actually impact the bottom line of a farmer.

If a farmer is working hard to raise a particular chicken, for example, getting good ratings and a ribbon could be a message to the rest of the local community that their breeding program is sound and their laying hens could be a great investment for someone looking to produce more eggs.

While carnivals had a slight sense of debauchery tied to them, a fair has more of a harvest celebration feel. However, while your pumpkins, gourds, and sweet corn may be judged at a county or state fair, the food options are less than healthy.

Fairs in particular are known for providing some of the most unique and unhealthy food options on the midway. It’s not uncommon to enjoy a funnel cake, ice cream, and a corn dog in a 20-food stretch from food courts parked at the state fair.

Enjoying food at a state fair
Enjoying food at a state fair

Additional calorie-laden treats, such as the deep-fried candy bar, are also a big boost to the calorie count.

Of course, you can buy alcohol at the fair. In fact, because many fairs are stationary and open seasonally, many of the people who go to a fair have to go through a security gate.

You usually can’t enter a fair with a cooler of your favorite adult beverages or a selection of food. The people who run the food carts that earn their largest payouts from fair attendees will be happy to sell you something tasty.

Be prepared to do a lot of walking when you enter a fairground. Often, these facilities are set at the edge of a larger town and have a lot of open ground.

If you need to sit down, it may be on a roller coaster. There may be tables and chairs where most of the food trucks are parked, but these are often full and may not be well maintained.

Luckily, fairs often offer a spot to sit down if you’re interested in horses and other large livestock. Horse shows often accompany state fairs and these arenas often have bench seating.

Fair season can be hot and dusty. Do get a bottle of water and a bit of food to keep you going. If you can tolerate deep-fried chunks of cheese or bits of bread dough loaded with butter (yes, fried butter is a state fair treat!) go for it!

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