by Jhon Sanders

Of all expressions of the universal festal culture instinct, the grand pageant of Carnival may well be the most enduring and widely observed in the world today. Ostensibly a festival of Christian affiliation with origins in the laity of the Roman Catholic Church, the essentially secular nature of Carnival and its celebration of sensuality makes for a timeless phenomenon with natural mass appeal to comers of all persuasions.

Traditionally, Carnival is the feast or series of feasts leading into Lent that begins with Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar (though the name itself has taken on a broader, generic meaning of any seasonal public celebration). The Lenten season is intended as a time of abstinence to purify the adherent for the coming Holy Week of Easter, commemorating Jesus’ forty-day retreat of fasting and prayer in the desert wilderness where he himself was subject to temptations of the flesh.

the Carrus Navalis; “ship-cart”

Carnival likely takes its name from the Middle Latin expression “carne vale” (“farewell flesh”)[1], referring to the common custom of refraining from meat-eating throughout Lent and perhaps to a more general parting with worldly comforts and pleasures as well. Another possible word origin for Carnival may be (also from the Latin) “carrus navalis”; “ship-cart”, or “wheel-boat”, a reference to the processional floats that were as much a significant part of the pageantry in the middle-ages as they are today[2].

“The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559

The practice of Carnival evolved in Europe at a time when ecclesiastic authorities were making a more vigorous effort than ever to remove spirited behavior from official church functions. From the days of the early church up through the late middle ages, worship services and holi-days alike had frequently been animated by dancing, rhythmic music, shouting, and other forms of frenzy among the congregations[3]. After centuries of attempts to purge the irrepressible festive impulse entirely from among the body of believers, the clergy seemed to have realized they were fighting a losing battle and a kind of reluctant compromise was reached, for a time: parishioners could have their revels and celebrate the holi-days in any way they chose, so long as the festivities happened away from the church and outside of its prescribed, decorous rites[4].

The 13th and 14th centuries saw a renaissance of urban celebratory activity across Europe as the schism between the staidly liturgical and the sensuously festal widened[5]. When weekly worship and other official church functions were no longer reliable outlets for communal celebratory needs, folk culture took over and (re)created its own forms and opportunities in the streets, though still retaining at least nominal connections to the church-sanctioned festival calendar. During this time, elements of festival with roots extending at least as far back as Greco-Roman antiquity suffused the increasingly secularized holi-days, and Carnival began taking shape alongside other festivities of the period as a blend of Dionysian inspiration and Christian observance. Despite a tide of suppression against public celebration by both state and church (Protestant and Catholic alike) beginning in the 16th century[6], the Carnival tradition persevered and re-emerged in our own era as the world’s exemplary modern street festival.

Though many of the most essential Carnivalean traditions can trace their lineage directly through to the Saturnalia and Dionysia of ancient Rome and Greece, they share a common primal heritage with many others across the broad spectrum of folk culture around the world from India to the Aztec empire, all partaking of the same archetypal bedrock engrained in the human situation and the human soul. Masquerading, satire and burlesque, the election of mock monarchs, the overturning of the normal order and role-reversals; all these gestures play their part in the celebration of Carnival wherever and whenever it appears.

Dionysus, Greek god of Ecstasy, proffering libation

More than any other aspect of costumery, the wearing of masks –whether in the street, at a dance, or in a ceremony– frees the wearer from their ordinary persona and allows them to take on a completely new one of their own choosing, releasing them from an identity imposed by society and circumstance. The fusion of peoples is an important part of Carnival and its antecedents, where rich and poor, male and female, aristocracy and peasantry, and all other social distinctions melt away and blend together in parity for the festival duration. The anonymity of a mask and costume not only dissolves such stratifications but also disinhibits the wearer from the behavioral restraints of their normal life; for better or for worse! Transvestism/cross-dressing likewise has always been a common part of the Carnival masquerade tradition.

An all-around subversion of the status quo is at the heart of Carnival tradition, and the masquerade is only one of many ways it’s expressed. Dating back to its earliest days, Carnival has included various rituals of mockery where authority figures are lampooned and sacred cows slain, theatrically or in effigy. A King of Fools or Lord of Misrule is often chosen from among the common people to reign over the festivities. The normally orderly, workaday streets turn unruly with dancing, singing and food-fights. Given this climate of playful, mischievous discontent with the established order, it’s not surprising that the high energy of the crowds have combined in times past with the anonymity of the masquerade and spilled over into spontaneous political violence or used as a launching pad for outright insurrection[7].

The overlap of the Lenten season with the closing days of winter makes Carnaval a natural repository for many of the spring-invoking folk customs that predate Christianity. Even today, Carnival in some cultures is at least half as much an end-of-winter purging and spring fertility rite as it is a preparation for the austerities of Lent (more on this below).

Karnevalean spring pageantry

The Carnival tradition appears from hemisphere to hemisphere in diverse cultures with a strong Roman Catholic –and to a lesser extent, Eastern Orthodox– influence (there is no small irony in the fact that the meme of what has become the lodestone of earthy, hedonic festivity in the world today was dispersed so far and wide by way of the Church). While the Carnivals of Brazil, Venice and New Orleans are among the most widely recognized and attended, there are many lesser known yet fascinating variants in scattered locales with their own regionally unique practices. The following are just a few examples of the world’s many colorful Carnival traditions.


Carnavaal procession in Goa

The Indian state of Goa became a Portuguese colony in the early 16thcentury, and Carnavaal was introduced there through the institution of Catholicism. Though Goa regained its autonomy in 1961, the Carnavaal is still very much alive and going stronger than ever there today. Three days of parties and antics in the streets culminate with a parade on Fat Tuesday. In past celebrations, great food and water fights were waged in the commons: flour, eggs, fruit, corn-cobs, beans, as well as dirty water, mud, and papier-mache mixtures were unleashed on hapless passersby, who might just as easily find themselves on the receiving end of blows from broom and wooden spoon. Old pots, pans and other kitchen utensils were thrown out of windows. These customs may have had as part of their basis a ritual cleansing before Lent by ridding the household of the old, broken and dirty. Today, pigments are used to smear celebrants in the streets, replacing the food fights of old. A King of Chaos, “Momo”, is elected to preside over the revels, which, in spite of their Christian origins, are attended by Hindus, Muslims and many others in a spirit of acceptance and inclusion[8].


the Zvoncari of Maskare

Karneval, or Maskare, is a blend of typical European bourgeois Carnival customs (particularly the Venetian and Austrian) with strong elements of Slavic folklore and tradition, and there is much of the spring fertility rite in it[9]. Bands of Zvoncari (“bell-men”) wearing animal headdresses march through the streets making noise enough to drive off the evil wintertime spirits and invoke spring renewal. Another Maskare ritual revolves around the figure of “Mesopust”/”Fasniik”/“Pokladnik”; a scapegoat in effigy personifying the difficulties and hardship of the previous year who is placed in a cage and paraded through the streets for the townspeople to jeer at and beat him, then finally burnt in the town center (or as in the city of Rijeka, set adrift in a flaming boat) to signify the passing of the old and hope for the new[10]


“Sla Katten Af Tonden”

In a departure from the practice of Carnival among Catholic populations, Denmark retained the celebration of Fastelavn (from the Low Saxon Fastelabend, or “fasting night”) after adopting Protestantism, and it continues to this day largely shorn of its former religious connections. Interestingly, many of the traditional Fastelavn customs make it seem more like a Scandanavian Halloween in February and is more a children’s holi-day than anything else. In earlier days, farm servants or generally young men would make rounds in the village, collecting meats and eggs from every household for the Shrovetide feast before Lent began[11]. Today, costumed children roam from house to house singing songs and demanding treats under playful threat of trouble-making[12]. Another updated custom from the middle-ages is the game of “sla katten af tonden”, or “knock the cat out of the barrel”, where in the original practice, a hanging barrel containing a cat was beaten with sticks until someone broke it open and the cat escaped, where it was then chased out of the town (it was believed that the cat would carry the collective bad luck of the town away with it). The custom today is essentially a game of pinada, with children beating on a cat-decorated barrel filled with candy and fruit; the one who succeeds in breaking it open and releasing the treats is crowned King or Queen Cat[13].


Bliny feast and snow revels of Maslenitsa
the burning of the Kostroma

The festival of Maslenitsa is ablend of Russian Orthodox pre-Lenten feast and pagan sun festival, full of snow-games, sledding, and pancake eating. Each day of the week before Lent (which begins later than on the western Christian festival calendar) is dedicated to a different facet of the celebration and has its own ritual activities, beginning on Monday with the creation of a vibrantly dressed straw effigy called “Kostroma” or “Lady Maslenitsa”, and ending on Forgiveness Sunday where all the quarrels from the previous year are laid to rest[14]. The Kostroma puppet – a feminine character– figures largely in the week’s proceedings. Early in the week she is carried around on a pole in procession accompanied by singing, then placed at the top of a snowy hill, where people spend the day’s remainder sledding and having snow-ball battles. The week’s celebrations are closed out with the night-time burning of Lady Maslenitsa (along with old rubbish, in some regions) in a bonfire to summon forth the warmth of spring, and her ashes buried in snow[15]. Another important feature of Maslenitsa is the bliny, a Russian pancake, which itself is meant to symbolize the Sun. Unlike pre–Lenten protocols of the west, the Orthodox Church forbids meat-eating all throughout the week before Lent begins, allowing animal byproducts only such as butter, eggs and milk; so the bliny cake becomes at once the last dietary indulgence before the ritual fast begins as well as a solar symbol consumed in profusion to invoke the energies of spring[16]. All the blinys remaining on the last night of the festival week were tossed in the bonfire along with Lady Maslenitsa[17].


  1. Carnival: Online Etymological Dictionary www.etymonline.com
  2. J.C. Cooper, The Dictionary of Festivals (Thorsons, 1995): Carnival, pg. 33
  3. Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: a History of Collective Joy (Henry Holt & Co. 2006) ch. 3: Jesus and Dionysus
  4. Ibid., pg. 76-77
  5. Ibid., pg. 78
  6. Ibid., pg. 97
  7. Ibid., pg. 102-105
  8. www.festivalsofindia.in/Goa www.aryabhatt.com/fast_fair_festival/Festivals/The%20Goa%20Carnival.htm
  9. www.ri-karneval.com.hr/Home.aspx?PageID=5
  10. www.novanada1.com/maskare.html
  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnival
  12. http://members.tripod.com/LINK_Settlers/fastelavn.htm
  13. Ibid.
  14. www.passportmagazine.ru/article/196
  15. www.scn.org/arts/russfolk/maslenitsa.htm Ibid., footnote 14
  16. www.russia-ic.com/culture_art/traditions/698
  17. Ibid., footnote 14
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