Carnevale, which started this week, is celebrated in many traditional Catholic countries in Europe and the Americas. Here, it consists of days of parades, parties and costumes and culminates in Martedi Grasso, which you will know as Mardi Gras. Carnevale is the last big blowout before the Lenten crackdown. I read somewhere on the Interwebs that the word carnevale comes from the Latin, carnem vale (farewell, meat!) since it’s a traditional thing to give up eating meat during Lent. I also read that it’s derived from carnem levam, which means ‘take away the meat.’ Whatever; suffice it to say that this time of year is hard on carnivores. The Upstairs Vegetarian doesn’t eat meat so she gives up chocolate.
Like some other Christian festivals, carnevale has pagan roots. The festival got shoehorned into the Catholic calendar after many failed attempts by the Church to eradicate it. The Catholic Church’s ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude gave us All Souls Day, which had its origins in an ancient festival of the dead, and is the reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25th. Back in ancient Roman times, December 25th or thereabouts was the last day of Saturnalia, which celebrated Saturn — the god of agriculture and the harvest — with parades, merry-making and gift giving. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 C.E., the Church figured it would be easier to get the multiple-god-worshipping pagans to buy into the new religion if they were able to hang onto their familiar rituals.
Carnevale is also linked to Saturnalia as well as to Bacchanalia, the celebration of Bacchus, the good of wine. Both are probably based on older, Greek festivals because the Romans stole everything from the Greeks. Bacchanalia was a cult thing, was pretty much prohibited by the Roman Senate and was originally restricted to women. The word has come to be synonymous with drunken revelry and, in fact, that is pretty much what Bacchanalia were all about back then. The big things about Saturnalia were role reversal and behavioural license, even for the slaves who got to dress up in bling and be waited on by their masters.
Venice, which throws Italy’s most famous pre-Lent festival, totally ran with the behavioural license aspect of Saturnalia when it started to celebrate carnevale in the 12th Century. The Venice carnevale is super famous for its masks and, supposedly, the tradition of mask-wearing started so that people could hide their identities when reveling and also to make it impossible to tell the nobility from common people, although I would have thought that the clothes would be a tip off.
In today’s Rome, carnevale is mostly about little kids parading around in costume and throwing confetti at each other. There’s also a lot of eating of frappe that goes on; this is basically deep fried dough with icing sugar sprinkled on top. Not my thing. Yesterday there was a big parade in my old neighbourhood and I went over to check it out. Have a look.