No one will put you into grammar prison for using the words interchangeably, but there are real differences between a carnival, fair and festival. They all have the goal of providing a fun time for many people, they just take slightly different routes to get there.
The basic differences between a carnival vs. a fair vs. a festival are as follows.
- Carnivals are typically traveling shows with a focus on fun games and thrilling rides
- Fairs are state-sponsored events that often have unique food, rides, games, and feature competitions (such as livestock judging and cooking contests)
- Festivals, while similar to carnivals and fairs, are tied to specific religious, seasonal, institutional or artistic events
The following provides a bit more detail for each.
What is a Carnival?
Like the circus, carnivals started as traveling shows that provided music, stage shows and other forms of entertainment for a scattered population separated by many miles. Modern traveling carnivals became popular in the 19th century. They include rides, games, music and dance, with performers working from town to town. They peaked in popularity during the Depression in the 1930s.
Today, people throw carnival-style parties that feature the types of event entertainment usually seen at classic carnivals, including a variety of games, food, dunking booths, thrill rides, slides and obstacle courses.
What is a Fair?
A fair has a lot in common with a carnival. However, it’s not a traveling show, and the scope is beyond rides, games and entertainment. Most people know about fairs from state fairs, although there also are county fairs and city fairs. Fairs are typically community-sponsored with a whole portion of the event devoted to competitions such as livestock judging, equestrian events and cooking contests (including barbecue, pie, cake and other tasty options).
While classic, traveling carnivals have largely disappeared, fairs continue to thrive.
What is a Festival?
People use the term “festival” as a substitute for fair or carnival. But a festival is a bit different. Most festivals are tied to a religious holiday (a church’s Christmas Festival or Easter Festival), an academic institution (schools at all levels have a Fall Festival and Spring Festival) or artistic events (music, literary and theatre festivals).
Festivals often have many of the same attractions as carnivals and fairs, including games, rides and stage events. But event planners tie festivals thematically into whatever season, event or artistic endeavor it focuses on.
Those are the main differences when it comes to carnivals vs. fairs vs. festivals. People swap one for the other all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if the topic ever comes up – or you’re trying to correctly name your event – it’s good to know the differences.