Party Pointer: The Origins of Carnaval

Mardi Gras is a winter holiday most Americans have heard and celebrate, but what is this holiday Carnaval which seems similar? Well, read more about the origins of Carnaval to understand this wild celebration preceding the Christian season of Lent.

The Lenten period of the Catholic Church calendar, beginning on Ash Wednesday and lasting for the six weeks before Easter, has been historically marked by fasting, study, and other pious practices. During Lent, no parties or celebrations were held, and people refrained from eating rich foods, such as meat, dairy, fat, and sugar.

The word Carnaval, with several spelling variations, comes from the Latin phrase carne levare, which means “to remove meat”; or “farewell to meat.”  Traditionally, a Carnival feast was the last opportunity for common people to eat well, as there was typically a food shortage at the end of the winter as provisions ran out. The fasting period was designed to coincide with the limited food available until new spring supplies came in,

The Carnaval season  also became a time of celebrating the banishing of winter spirits for a spring resurrection, the return of daylight and fertility. Traditionally, the feast also was a time to indulge sexual desires, which were supposed to be suppressed during the following fast.

Carnaval was also a manifestation of European folk culture. It was the custom during Carnaval that the ruling class would be playfully mocked using masks and disguises. These role reversals, temporary social equality, masks, and permitted rule-breaking were popular. Some of the best-known traditions included public street parties and other entertainments, combining some elements of a circus, carnal parades, costumes, masks of monsters, animals and demons, and masquerade balls.

Other common features of Carnaval include mock battles like food fights; expressions of social satire; mockery of authorities; abusive language and degrading acts; depictions of disease and gleeful death; and a general reversal of everyday rules and norms. Costumes of the grotesque body that display exaggerated features such as large noses, bellies, mouths, phalli, or elements of animal bodies are also popular.

Carnaval typically involves public celebrations, including events such as parades, Elaborate costumes and masks allow people to set aside their everyday individuality and experience a heightened sense of social unity. Participants often indulge in excessive consumption of alcohol, meat, and other foods that will be forgone during upcoming Lent. Traditionally, butter, milk, and other animal products were not consumed “excessively”, rather, their stock was fully consumed as to reduce waste. Pancakes, donuts, and other desserts were prepared and eaten for a final time.

From medieval Italy, Carnaval traditions spread to Spain, Portugal, and France, and from France to New France in North America. From Spain and Portugal, it spread with colonization to the Caribbean and Latin America. In America, especially in the southern Mississippi area, Carnaval took on some new traditions, and became what we know as Mardi Gras.

So, in essence, Mardi Gras and Carnaval are the same holiday–the dates are the same, the purpose is the same, and the level of revelry and celebration is the same!


Leave a Reply