Interesting facts: Carnival as a Christian pre-Lent festival

The tradition of bidding farewell to a light-hearted pre-Lent period with a spectacular as much as hedonic celebration stretches back to the Middle Ages. By allowing licentious partying, the medieval Church promoted the ushering of excess before the Lenten season. Let's get down to the nitty-gritty of Carnival.

Carnival meaning

Although the origin of the word is uncertain, some scholars hypothesize that Carnival comes from the Latin carnem levare, meaning "to remove meat," and refers to the fact that Carnival is a pre-lent festival intended to prepare all believers for meat abstinence during Lent. Carnival and Lent are, in fact, two opposed events, the former acting as a celebratory and sumptuous preparation for the latter.

Following the Catholic calendar, Carnival officially begins on Epiphany and ends on Shrove Tuesday (24 Feb. 2020) that is the very last occasion on which rich and fatty meals are still allowed before Lent. Eliminating meat and dairy products is a penitential preparation for Easter aimed at purifying people's mind, body, and soul, to reconcile them with God. 

Shrove Tuesday feast.

Today's Carnival may have lost some of its original spirit of parody and satire, but it now offers even more masquerading, splendor, and audacity. In Rome, you will see children dressed up as cartoon and movie characters throwing multi-colored confetti all over Roman sampietrini (cobblestones). You know that Carnival is coming when traditional Carnival treats start to appear in bakeries' window displays. Fried and sweet, castagnole, and frappe are the two protagonists of this period's fatty cuisine.

Unlike in Rome, Carnival is an institution in Venice, whose centuries-old tradition of scenic street masquerade is renowned worldwide.

Venice Carnival

Italy hosts one of the most magnificent Carnivals in the world — the Carnival of Venice. It went down in history for its picturesque parades and masquerade balls. Celebrated for the first time at the beginning of the 10th century, it was a 'democratic' feast where even the poorest could partake. Not only its famed fine silk and velvet costumes but also the papier-mâché Venetian masks have characterized the Venice Carnival for centuries now. 

Fantastic, magnificent, irreverent — Carnival is the last fling before Lent. Back in the days when social class disparities were blatant, this festival was a time to dare. Elaborate costumes and imaginative masks erased one's identity, allowing greater freedom, particularly appreciated by the lower layers of the population. Masks and costumes permitted the dissolution of social divisions.

Inaugurated by a procession of the most beautiful girls in town, Venice Carnival lasts 11 days. It culminates on Shrove Tuesday — the "Fat Tuesday" for Italians — with the traditional Flight of the Angel when a young girl flies from the bell tower to a stage located on the other side of St. Mark square.

The Flight of the Angel in Venice.

Related articles:

Thomas More’s Carnival Prayer for Good Humor →

Shrovetide: the religious meaning behind Carnival →

The Great Lent Unveiled in 5 Basic Facts →