Portugal sunk into a double-dip recession last year, and the government forecasts the economy will shrink a further 3 percent this year. Unemployment is at a record 14 percent.
Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho refused to grant the usual day off for Carnival. The day is not an official public holiday, but that demand to work is something that had not been done since an economic crisis in 1993.
The center-right prime minister said he hoped people would understand the need for sacrifices.
"This isn't a normal year, it's an important year of national emergency," Passos Coelho said at the time. "(I hope) the Portuguese understand that this is no time to be talking about tradition, it's about finding out who wants to beat this crisis and who wants to cling to old traditions."
The government made no comment Tuesday about the public's rejection of its appeal.
Although unions have staged strikes and protests against the tax hikes and pay cuts, the Portuguese have largely accepted the austerity program with resignation, exhibiting none of the street violence that has wracked Greece.
While Carnival in Portugal doesn't match the glamor and all-night revelry seen in Brazil, it is tremendously popular with children and adults alike. Many rural towns and villages observe centuries-old traditions, some of them pagan, many of them comical, vulgar and satirical.
Several towns stage a mock public trial and execution of a rooster. Like many such ancient rituals, its origins are unclear. The celebrations often end with a meal of dried salted cod — a typical Portuguese dish — to mark the start of the Catholic period of Lent.
With local authorities who organize street parades feeling the economic crunch, festivities this year were scaled back. Brazilian soap opera stars are often invited to be kings and queens of Portuguese carnivals but this year the VIP guests were mostly national celebrities.
The celebrations in Torres Vedras, 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Lisbon, are known as "the most Portuguese Carnival." The local council cut spending this year by 16 percent but still splashed out around euro400,000 ($531,000) on Carnival events to draw thousands of visitors.
The prime minister was a recurring figure on the floats at Torres Vedras, mostly in an unflattering light. One of the handmade floats, which often take months to put together, showed Passos Coelho sitting atop a giant piggy bank.
Another sign at the noisy parade issued a not-so-subtle threat to Passos Coelho, who came to power seven months ago after voters angry over austerity measures tossed out the previous Socialist government.
"Governments come and go but Carnival stays," the sign said.
AP writers Jenny Barchfield in Rio de Janeiro, Mary Foster and Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans, Greg Keller in Paris and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.