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Why is Carnival celebrated?   What are the tradition and symbols that come with Carnival?  Is it that important?

Carnival is a festive season which occurs immediately before Lent; the main events are usually during February. Carnival typically involves a public celebration or parade combining some elements of a circus, mask and public street party.  People often dress up or masquerade during the celebrations, which mark an overturning of daily life. In Germany and the Netherlands, the Carnival season is traditionally opened on 11/11 (often at 11:11 a.m.). This dates back to celebrations before the former longer Advent season (40 days now reduced to about four weeks), or with harvest celebrations of St. Martin’s Day.

Carnival is traditionally held in areas with a large Catholic and to a lesser extent, Eastern Orthodox makeup. Protestant areas usually do not have Carnival celebrations or have modified traditions, such as the Danish Carnival or other Shrove Tuesday events. Conversely, the Philippines, though a predominantly Roman Catholic country, does not have Carnival celebrations because it has been culturally influenced by neighboring Asian nations, which do not have Carnival celebrations.

The Lenten period of the Liturgical year Church calendar, being the six weeks directly before Easter, was marked by fasting and other pious or penitential practices. Traditionally during Lent, no parties or other celebrations were held, and people refrained from eating rich foods, such as meat, dairy, fats and sugar. The forty days of Lent, recalling the Gospel accounts of the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, serve to mark an annual time of turning. In the days before Lent, all rich food and drink had to be disposed of. The consumption of this, in a giant party that involved the whole community, is thought to be the origin of Carnival.

While it forms an integral part of the Christian calendar, particularly in Catholic regions, many carnival traditions dates back to pre-Christian times. The Italian Carnival may be derived from the ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Bacchanalia.  The Saturnalia, in turn, may be based on the Greek Dionysia and Oriental festivals. While medieval pageants and festivals such as Corpus Christi were church-sanctioned celebrations, carnival was also a manifestation of medieval folk culture. Many local carnival customs are based on local pre-Christian rituals, for example the elaborate rites involving masked figures in the Swabian-Alemannic Fastnacht.

Some of the best-known traditions, including carnival parades and masquerade ball masquerading, were first recorded in medieval Italy. The carnival of Venice was, for a long time, the most famous carnival. From Italy, carnival traditions spread to the Catholic nations of Spain, Portugal, and France. From France, they spread to the Rhineland of Germany, and to New France in North America. From Spain and Portugal, they spread with Catholic colonization to the Caribbean and Latin America. In 1823 the first worldwide carnival parade took place in Cologne, Germany.

Other areas have developed their own traditions. In the United Kingdom, West Indian immigrants brought with them the traditions of Caribbean Carnival, however the Carnivals now celebrated at Notting Hill, London; Leeds, Yorkshire, and other places have become divorced from their cycle in the religious year, becoming purely secular events that take place in the summer months.

The origin of the name “Carnival” is disputed, between those that argue a link with the Italian word “carne” (meat), and those that argue a link with the word “carrus” (car). The link with carne would suggest an origin within Christianity, while the link with carro with earlier religions.

Those that argue for the origin from “carne”, point to variants in Italian dialects that would suggest that the name comes from the Italian carne levare or similar, meaning “to remove meat”, since meat is prohibited during Lent.

Folk etymologies exist which state that the word comes from the Late Latin expression carne vale, which means “farewell to meat”, signifying that those were the last days when one could eat meat before the fasting of Lent. The word carne may also be translated as flesh, so suggesting carne vale as “a farewell to the flesh”, a phrase actually embraced by certain Carnival celebrants who encourage letting go of your former (or everyday) self and embracing the carefree nature of the festival. However, explanations proceeding from carne vale seem to be folk etymologies and are not supported by philological evidence.

Other scholars argue for the origin from the Roman name for the festival of the ship of Isis, where the image of Isis was carried to the sea-shore to bless the start of the sailing season. The festival consisted of a parade of masks following an adorned wooden boat that would reflect the floats of modern Carnivals.   Modern Carnival shares resemblances with the ship of Isis.

Carnival was introduced to the Cape Verde Islands by the Portuguese who settled there bringing with them Catholic festivities and traditions to the uninhabited islands. The pre-Lenten celebration is considered one of most colorful carnivals of Africa and is celebrated in each of the nine inhabited islands of the archipelago. The carnival of Mindelo, in the island of Sao Vicente is considered the most animated, where a number of groups challenge each other for the yearly prize. The carnival of Cape Verde, especially of Mindelo, has witnessed in recent years considerable influences from Brazilian carnival traditions. The celebration in the neighboring island of Sao Nicolau is considered to be the more traditional, where established groups celebrate the festival parading through the narrow colonial streets of Riberia Brava, culminating in the picturesque town square. The Carnival of Sao Nicolau has also suffered interference from Brazilian Carnival, especially with the drums, floats, and costumes. In Sao Nicolau there is a presence of three groups: Copa Cabana, Estrela Azul and Brilho Da Zona. Every group constructs its float in their very own stall using fire, journal papers for the mold, iron and steel to give height and width; they also paint it to bring the floats to life. Carnival Sao Nicolau is celebrated three days: Saturday at dawn, Sunday in the afternoon, and finally Tuesday, the last day before Lent. The group’s rehearsals are outdoors, inside the soccer courts. The Carnival Groups of Sao Nicolau are spectacular, as they shine with fabulous costumes and pomp. This Carnival has attracted tourists from world over and is a popular destination of tourism in the island.

The most famous Carnivals of Italy are those held in Venice, Viareggio, Ivrea and Acireale.

The Carnival in Venice was first recorded in 1268. The subversive nature of the festival is reflected in Italy’s many laws over the past several centuries attempting to restrict celebrations and the wearing of masks, a central feature of the Carnival.  Carnival celebrations in Venice were halted for many years after the city fell under Austrian control in 1798, but were revived in the late 20th century.

The month-long Carnival of Viareggio is one of the most renowned in Europe, and is characterized mainly by its parade of floats and masks caricaturing popular figures. In 2001, the town built a new “Carnival citadel” dedicated to Carnival preparations and entertainment.

The Carnival of Ivrea is famous for its Battle of the Oranges fought with citruses between the people by foot and the troops of the tyrant on the carts, to remember the wars that really happened during the Middle Ages.

In the most part of the Archdiocese of Milan the Carnival lasts four more days, ending on the Saturday after Ash Wednesday, because of the Ambrosian rite.

Užgavėnės is a festival that takes place during the seventh week before Easter (Ash Wednesday). Its name in English means “the time before Lent”. The celebration corresponds to Carnival holiday traditions in other parts of the world.

Užgavėnės begins on the night before Ash Wednesday, when an effigy of winter (usually named Morė) is burnt. A major element of the holiday, meant to symbolize the defeat of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, is a staged battle between Lašininis (“porky”) personifying winter and Kanapinis (“hempen man”) personifying spring. Devils, witches, goats, the grim reaper, and other joyful and frightening characters appear in costumes during the celebrations

United States   – Carnival celebrations, usually referred to as Mardi Gras, were first celebrated in the Gulf Coast area of the United States, but now occur in many other states. Customs originated in the onetime French colonial capitals of Mobile (Alabama), New Orleans (Louisiana) and Biloxi (Mississippi), all of which have been celebrated for many years with street parades and masked balls. Other major U.S. cities with celebrations include Miami, Florida; Tampa, Florida; St. Louis, Missouri; Pensacola, Florida; San Diego; Galveston, Texas and Orlando, Florida.

Carnival is celebrated in New York City in the Borough of Brooklyn. As in the UK, the timing of Carnival has been separated from the Christian calendar and is celebrated on Labor Day Monday, in September. It is called the Labor Day Carnival, West Indian Day Parade or West Indian Day Carnival, and was founded by immigrants from Trinidad, one of the West Indian islands that has one of the largest Carnivals of the Caribbean region. In the mid twentieth century, West Indians moved the timing of the New York area Carnival from the beginning of Lent to the Labor Day weekend. The West Indian Day Carnival is one of the largest parades and street festivals in New York, with over one million people usually participating or attending. The parade, which consists of steel bands, floats, elaborate Carnival costumes and sound trucks, proceeds along Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood.

Starting in 2013, the Slovenian-American community located in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio began hosting a local version of Kurentovanje, the Carnival event held in the city of Ptuj, Slovenia.  The event is conducted on the Saturday prior to Ash Wednesday.

Louisiana  –   The most widely known, most elaborate, and most popular events are in New Orleans, while other South Louisiana cities such as Lake Charles, Lafayette, Mamou, Houma,  and Thibodaux all of which were under French control at one time or another, are the sites of famous Carnival celebrations of their own.

Major Mardi Gras celebrations are spreading to other parts of the United States, such as the Mississippi Valley region of St. Louis, Missouri, Orlando, Florida in Universal Studios, and in the Gas Lamp Quarter of San Diego.

Kathy Kiefer


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