Do you know the suprising history of carnival?

The season to put on costumes, go out in ridiculous clothes and parade around the city has come! It is the time for carnival, Mardi Gras, carnaval… What do you call it? Is there a difference between the three of them? Let’s find out!

Photo by Ugur Arpaci on Unsplash

Carnival history

It’s important to note that this celebration started with Christianity, in reference to Christian values and traditions, although it has spread across religions and cultures. Carnival has become a festivity everyone can celebrate, but the origin of the tradition is crucial to understand the names it receives. Depending on where you live, you may have heard of “carnival”, “Mardi Gras”, “carnaval” and even “carnevale,” and they are more or less the same.

Carnival is a Western Christian festive season that takes place before the liturgical season of Lent. The main events usually occur in February or early March, during Shrovetide (or Pre-Lent). If you are not familiar with Christianism, during Lent, people sacrifice luxuries such as sweets, meat and alcohol to represent Jesus fasting for 40 days in the desert. Carnival usually takes place during a week in Shrovetide and refers to a time where people celebrate with parties, food and drinks, which will be sacrificed during Lent. Carnival includes parades, costumes, circus-like spectacles and excessive consumption of food. Historically, people ate fatty foods to avoid food waste, as Lenten sacrifices would not allow indulgent feasts. 

Carnival / Carnaval / Carnevale

The name of the holiday is derived from Latin, and is spelled as Carnival/Carnaval/Carnevale depending on where it is celebrated. It is said to come from the expression carne levare, which means “remove meat”; or the folk etymology derives it from carne vale, “farewell to meat”. In both cases, it signifies the approaching fast. Carne also means flesh, producing “a farewell to the flesh”, so the festival’s carefree spirit. All in all, it keeps with the Christian tradition.

Others argue that the origin is a common meat-based country feast (carnualia) or the festival of the Navigium Isidis (“ship of Isis”), where the image of Isis was carried to the seashore to bless the start of sailing season. The festival had a parade of masks following a wooden boat, the carrus navalis, the source of the name and the parade floats.

Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras has its origin in that idea of feasting before Lent. It specifically refers to Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent). This day would mean a big feast of sweet and fat-filled foods such as pancakes, donuts and other desserts. But why “Mardi Gras”? Well, it is French for “Fat Tuesday,” which makes sense considering the types of foods that are consumed that day.

The name comes from medieval Europe, when the French House of Bourbons had a huge influence in the continent. There are different origin stories for it, but it is believed it comes from “Boeuf Gras” (or fatted calf), a parade from the Paris carnival in which there are costumes of oxes in reference to the following Lenten meat fast.

This tradition followed the French colonies to New Orleans in the 17th century, when the colonist Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville named the part of land “Pointe du Mardi Gras,” as it was the eve of the holiday when they settled. New Orleans celebrated the first American Mardi Gras and, up to this day, has the biggest Mardi Gras celebrations in the country. Although the way it is celebrated has changed a lot over the centuries, it is still a major holiday in the city and perpetuates the ideas of carnival with parades, floats, costumes and much more.

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