Holidays Around The World for Feb. 20: Carnival


Cheese Week, Mardi Gras, Maslenitsa, Packzi Day, Pancake Day, Shrovetide

Carnival is a holiday that developed in response to a religious observance, namely the six-week season of Lent. In the Middle Ages Christians endured many trying religious disciplines during Lent. As a result they celebrated the week before Lent began, enjoying one last fling before beginning these hardships.

Carnival celebrations last from several days to over a week and take place in early spring. Many festivals begin in earnest on the Saturday or Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. The Thursday before Ash Wednesday, sometimes called “Fat Thursday,” also once served as a traditional starting date for Carnival. The date of Carnival changes from year to year, as its timing depends on that of Easter (see also Easter, Date of). The festival reaches its peak on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. In some countries people call this day “Fat Tuesday.” Indeed Carnival began as a means of using up rich foods and indulging in lively behavior before the start of Lent with its accompanying fast and other religious disciplines.

Symbols and Customs

Although Carnival celebrations vary from country to country and region to region, they usually include some or all of the following customs and symbols. Most Carnivals offer participants various opportunities to take to the streets in costumes or masks. As people temporarily take on the identity represented by the costume or mask, they engage in a spontaneous kind of play-acting with other costumed participants and onlookers. The fool or clown plays an important role in many Carnival festivals and symbolizes the topsy-turvy nature of the holiday. Many celebrations also feature a mock king and queen, who rule over the kingdom of Carnival during the few days of its duration. Some festivals schedule a symbolic funeral at the end of the week’s festivities. A dummy, or some insignificant item, such as a sardine, is “killed” and buried, and this burial represents the death and laying to rest of Carnival for another year. Often people throw things at one another during Carnival celebrations, whether it be water, flowers, candy, oranges, or party favors, such as confetti or beads. Finally, Carnival customs often encourage people to eat and drink heartily, and may also include some loosening of the usual rules of social conduct.

Origins of the Word “Carnival”

Researchers disagree about the roots of the word “Carnival.” Some say it comes from the Latin phrase caro levare, which means to lift or remove meat. During the Middle Ages this phrase became carne levare, and eventually, carne vale. It passed into English as “Carnival.” In some of the Romance languages that evolved from Latin, the word took on a similar form. In Spanish it’s carnaval, in Italian carnavale, and in Portuguese carnaval. The French call it Mardi Gras, which means “Fat Tuesday.” Other researchers have drawn different conclusions about the origin of the word Carnival. They say it comes from carrus navalis, a boat-shaped cart drawn through the city streets during the ancient Roman winter festival of Saturnalia. Masked and costumed men and women rode in the cart, singing coarse songs.


Where did Carnival come from? Most researchers agree that it began as a celebration of the last few days before the beginning of Lent. During the Middle Ages, people observed Lent by fasting, refraining from marital relations, reflecting mournfully on their shortcomings, and in some cases performing penance for serious misdeeds (for more on penance, see Repentance; see also Sin). No marriages could be performed during this somber time. Therefore, people celebrated the week before they began this strict regimen by indulging in rich foods, gaiety, and outrageous behavior, in other words, by enjoying all that was soon to be forbidden.

While Carnival as we know it today began in Europe in the Middle Ages, some writers believe that its origins lie in various celebrations that took place in the ancient Mediterranean world. They point to a variety of festivals observed in ancient times which resemble Carnival in certain ways. For example, during Saturnalia people feasted, drank, and reveled in the streets, often in costume. Moreover, social rank temporarily disappeared, as those of high rank served those of low rank, slaves enjoyed a temporary holiday, and people engaged in madcap behavior of all kinds.

The Babylonian and Mesopotamian New Year festivals, rowdy celebrations that took place in mid-spring, also featured street masquerades (for more on a related modern festival, see No Ruz). In biblical times the Jewish people created a spring holiday called Purim. During this holiday, still celebrated today, people hid their identities behind masks, men and women wore each other’s clothing, and people engaged in wild behavior normally considered inappropriate. Another Roman holiday, Lupercalia, which took place in early spring, offered certain young men an opportunity to dress in animal skins and run wild through the streets, flailing whips at young women who crossed their path. According to Roman folk belief, the strokes of these whips bestowed fertility. Finally, Roman devotees of the goddess Cybele observed a joyous spring festival called Hilaria.

Other writers disagree with the argument that Carnival evolved from these ancient celebrations. They point out that, with the exclusion of Purim, the last of these ancient festivals disappeared about five hundred years before 965 A.D., when the first mention of European Carnival celebrations appears in an historical document. This fact leads this group of researchers to conclude that, although Carnival shares some customs with ancient festivals, medieval Europeans invented the observance on their own as a means of letting off steam before beginning the hardships of Lent.

Medieval and Renaissance Carnivals

The earliest mentions of European Carnival celebrations in historical documents call it carnelevare, literally “lift up meat” or “take away meat.” Indeed, judging by these documents, eating meat seems to be the primary custom connected with the season. Carnival rooted itself in the European folk calendar between the years 1000 and 1300 with celebrations focused around feasting in preparation for the fasting soon to come.

The full range of customs that came to characterize European Carnival celebrations developed in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. During these centuries, which coincided with a period of social and intellectual change that historians have dubbed the Renaissance, people adopted new ways of looking at the world. These new perspectives included humanism, a philosophy that emphasized the need to place human interests above other concerns, and naturalism, a doctrine that denied the existence of anything beyond the natural world. These philosophies influenced Carnival celebrations by increasing the value people placed on lighthearted foolishness as a means of counterbalancing the artificial social demands and seriousness required of people in everyday life. During this era Carnival celebrations came to include a greater emphasis on clowns, fools, and social satire, that is, making fun of society and its rules. The famous Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel (c.1525-1530 to 1569) left us a visual description of the Carnival celebrations of this era in his 1559 painting entitled “The Battle of Carnival and Lent.” By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries those populations in which Carnival had taken root observed the festive season with masquerades, rich foods, drink, and rowdy revelry, especially antics that made fun of human folly or reversed social roles and ranks. Custom encouraged people to play pranks on one another, especially to throw water, flour, beans, dirt, or other substances at each other.

Criticism of Carnival

In the mid-fifteenth century Church authorities began to criticize Carnival celebrations for encouraging various kinds of excesses and creating public disorder. These criticisms often compared Carnival to pagan Roman festivals, suggesting that they indeed represented a survival of paganism and therefore should be suppressed. Active repression of Carnival celebrations began in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the year 1748 Pope Benedict XIV instituted a new custom in the Roman Catholic Church. This custom, called the “forty hours of Carnival,” required Roman Catholic churches to hold special services on the evenings of the last three days of Carnival. Churches also left their doors open during these forty hours so that people could enter at any time to seek God’s forgiveness for sins committed during the festival.

Carnival in the Modern Era

In the sixteenth century well-to-do Italians began to host costume balls in celebration of Carnival. This trend eventually spread to other parts of Europe, giving rise to a courtly Carnival. This same trend led to the introduction of elegant floats and magnificent parades, which encouraged a more civil and structured celebration.

In spite of official opposition and unease, Carnival celebrations proved impossible to stamp out in much of southern Europe. In northern Europe, however, Carnival celebrations faded away in some regions where they had once been popular. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries people began to beautify the festival in response to new perspectives introduced by the Romantic movement, which tended to idealize old traditions and folkways. Over time many Europeans discarded some of the dirtier and more aggressive customs associated with the holiday, such as throwing water or oranges at one another, and replaced them with gentler gestures, like tossing confetti and flowers. It became fashionable in some cities to ride in flowercovered carriages, construct elaborate parade floats, and host elegant masked balls. As the parades grew in importance the nature of the festival changed. Previously everyone had participated in the masked hijinks. Now a division grew up between participants and spectators. In the past the spirit of Carnival swept over the entire town. Now it was concentrated along a specific parade route.

From Europe to the Americas

While some of these changes were felt in Spain and Portugal, their rural Carnival celebrations continued in the same rowdy spirit of ages past. People in the street threw oranges, lemons, eggs, flour, mud, straw, corncobs, beans or lupines (a type of flower) at one another, and people on balconies poured dirty water, glue or other obnoxious substances on the crowds below. Those in the streets battled one another with brooms or wooden spoons. Indoors people feasted on rich foods, to which they also treated guests. The wealthier homes might even toss cakes and pastries out windows to passersby. Colonists from these countries exported this version of Carnival, called Entrudo in Portuguese, and Antroido or Entroido in the Galician language of northwestern Spain, to Latin America.

Latin American Carnival celebrations blend European Carnival customs with African and Native American traditions of celebration. African-influenced music and dance, for example, play an especially important role in Carnival celebrations in Brazil and Trinidad (see also Brazil, Carnival in; Trinidad, Carnival in). Meanwhile the French succeeded in transferring their Carnival celebrations to certain of their colonies in North America, namely those centered around the cities of New Orleans and Mobile. These celebrations, known as Mardi Gras, survive today, a regional American expression of an old European seasonal festival.

For more on Carnival, see Brazil, Carnival in; Cheese Week; Germany, Carnival in; Italy, Carnival in; Mardi Gras; Maslenitsa; Paczki Day; Pancake Day; Shrovetide; Switzerland, Carnival in; and Trinidad, Carnival in

Further Reading

Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999. Goldwasser, Maria Julia. “Carnival.” In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 3. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Holidays. Volume 1. Detroit, MI: UXL, 2000. Kinser, Samuel. Carnival American Style. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Lau, Alfred. Carneval International. Bielefeld, Germany: Univers-Verlag, n.d. Orloff, Alexander. Carnival: Myth and Cult. Wörgl, Austria: Perlinger, 1981.


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