What is the Difference Between a Fair and a Carnival?

Everything Michigan

What is the Difference Between a Fair and a Carnival?

January 11, 2024 Blog Culture Life 0
fairs carnivals car shows

After the winter holiday season is over, my mind starts to look forward to spring, and I begin to make plans for outdoor activities like:

  • Festivals
  • Fairs
  • Carnivals
  • Art fairs
  • The Woodward Cruise
  • Car shows
  • Music festivals
  • Firework shows

But I have always wondered, what is the difference between a fair and a carnival? For example, the local faith-based facility in my neighborhood has a “Summers End Fair” with rides, bake sales, Polish food, games, carnie food trucks, a beer tent with live bands and rides like a Ferris wheel or a small roller coaster.

In the neighboring town, their faith-based facility puts on a “spring carnival.” They have Bingo, games, book sales, raffles, art vendors, caricature drawings, and a bake sale but not a single ride. Why?

Let’s see what the experts say the difference is:

  • Feature                                 Carnival                                                               Fair                                                                                                                                   
  • Location                               Traveling                                                              Permanent
  • Atmosphere                       Exciting, thrilling                                               Fun, safe
  • Rides and games               Designed to be exciting and thrilling         Designed to be fun and safe
  • Sideshows                           Often featured                                                   Rarely featured
  • Religious associations     Often associated with religious holidays Not typically associated with any                                                                                                             specific religious holiday

According to Wikipedia, a fair (archaic: faire or fayre) is a gathering of people for a variety of entertainment or commercial activities. Fairs are typically temporary, with scheduled times lasting from an afternoon to several weeks. Fairs showcase a wide range of goods, products, and services, and often include competitions, exhibitions, and educational activities. Fairs can be thematic, focusing on specific industries or interests.

Traveling funfair or carnival, an amusement show made up of amusement rides, food vending stalls, merchandise vending stalls, games of “chance and skill”, thrill acts and (now less commonly) animal acts.

It sounds to me like a carnival is a type of fair. That makes more sense now why that one event is called a carnival, not just a plain fair.

History of fairs in the world

The International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE) is a voluntary, not-for-profit corporation serving state, provincial, regional, and county agricultural fairs, shows, exhibitions, and expositions.

IAFE suggests that “…evidence points to the existence of fairs as early as 500 BC Scripture records in the book of Ezekiel: “Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of the kinds of riches with silver, iron, tin and lead, they traded in thy fairs.”

Fairs were commercial in character from the beginning. Merchants from distant countries would come together, bringing native wares to trade with one another, and even though it is not clearly explained in Ezekiel or in other biblical references, it is reasonable to assume that “fair” was the name given to the place at which early trading between foreign merchants was conducted.”

They pointed out the relationship between the religious aspect and commerce. The Latin word “feria,” meaning holy day, would appear to be the logical root of the word “fair.” Each feria was a day when many people would assemble for worship. “Possibly, our modern church bazaars possess some rudiments of these religious fairs. “

What was the largest fair in history?

According to Guinness World Records, the site of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St Louis, Missouri, USA, in 1904 covered 514.66 ha (a hectare is equivalent to 10,000 square meters or 0.01 square kilometers), 1271.76 acres. There was an attendance of 19,694,855 people. Events of the 1904 Olympic Games were staged in conjunction.

Guinness World Records – originally the Guinness Book of Records, began in the early 1950s when Sir Hugh Beaver (1890—1967), Managing Director of the Guinness Brewery, attended a shooting party in County Wexford. He and his hosts argued about the fastest game bird* in Europe and failed to find an answer in any reference book.

Of course, a book of records would originate from a pub argument! I should have known with the name “Guinness” in the title! As a previous bartender, I cannot tell you how many times people would start drinking, and before long, an argument would inevitably transpire.

We didn’t yet have the internet to solve such quarrels, so the bartender ultimately had to play mediator, babysitter, parent, and dispute negotiator all at once. However, since the inception of the internet and having answers to debates at any given moment, the regular bar brawls have thankfully diminished (so I have heard). How grateful I am to be out of the bar business!

Types of fairs

How about we return to that original list and add more types of fairs? Here are a few of my favorite fairs to attend:

  • Carnivals: In our local area of Michigan, hosted and sponsored by St. Mary’s Orchard Lake, the St. Mary’s Polish Country Fair is the nation’s largest high school fair and the largest fundraiser for the legendary educational institution, attracting more than 125,000 visitors each year. Unfortunately, the annual event has not resumed since the Pandemic shutdown.
  • Art fairs: The Ann Arbor Art Fair is a group of four award-winning, not-for-profit United States art fairs that occur annually in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with over 400,000 visitors attending the fairs each year.
  • The Woodward Dream Cruise is the world’s largest one-day automotive annual event in Southeast Michigan that features over 40,000 classic cars cruising along a 16-mile stretch of the historic Woodward Avenue, attracting around 1.7 million spectators from across the State and around the globe.
  • Music festivals: Well-known examples include Coachella in California, which draws around 99,000 attendees per day, and Glastonbury in the UK, with an average attendance of 135,000 people. In Michigan, we celebrate festival season with a lineup of must-see music festivals stacked with amazing acts, from electronic and hip-hop to country and folk; these festivals will surely have you rocking out all summer!
  • Firework shows: The Detroit-Windsor International Freedom Festival began in 1959 as a multi-day celebration, jointly marking both Canada Day on July 1st and America’s Independence Day on July 4th. The two events have now separated, but it is still one of North America’s largest and most spectacular fireworks displays, as it lights up the sky over both cities and draws more than one million people to the Windsor and Detroit riverfronts.
  • State fairs: The Michigan State Fair is an annual event initially held in Detroit from 1849 to 2009. Agriculture still has a significant place in the Michigan economy, so in 2011, supporters organized the Great Lakes Agricultural Fair, a 501 C (3) organization, to continue the event. Since 2013, it has been organized by the private Michigan State Fair LLC and held in the Suburban Collection Showplace in the Metro Detroit suburb of Novi.
  • County fairs: The San Diego County Fair in California is one of the largest county fairs in the country, drawing over 1.5 million visitors annually. It offers entertainment shows, agricultural exhibits, carnival rides, and various food vendors.
  • Car shows: The Geneva International Motor Show in Switzerland is a prestigious auto show that attracts over 600,000 visitors and showcases the latest innovations from renowned car manufacturers. And if you are in The Motor City (#puremichigan), you can count on hundreds of car shows each summer, in every town, across the whole Mitten!
What is the difference between a fair and a carnival?

In short, carnivals are small, often traveling, and focus on entertainment. Fairs are larger, often community-sponsored, and feature competitions as well as elements of carnivals.