No. Don’t Stop the Carnival 14

Breugel the Elder: The Fight between Carnival and Lent

When I was young, a carnival was a travelling funfair or a parade. Today ‘Carnival’ and ‘Mardi Gras’ are used in the UK for organised street festivals like the Manchester Mardi Gras and the Notting Hill Carnival – both in August. The above illustrate how word meanings change over time.

The originally Carnival or Carne Vale meant ‘Goodbye to Meat’ in Italian. Mardi Gras is ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French. Both signified the final celebration before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent (a 40 day period of fasting, repentance and self-denial in preparation for Easter Sunday commemorating Christ’s resurrection).

The word ‘Easter’ has nothing to do with Jesus. It is the name of a Germanic goddess of the dawn, Eostre, literally ‘east’, as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

Because the earth tilts on its axis, the sun appears to move along the horizon during the year. When we tilt away from the sun during winter, the sun appears to rise south east (in the northern hemisphere). When we tilt towards the sun in summer it rises south west.

Around the spring equinox (21 March) the sun rises directly east. For this reason what is now April was called Eostremonath by the Anglo Saxons.

This period corresponds to the Jewish Passover, the time Jesus was crucified and resurrected according to the Gospels. In English, Easter became the name of the Paschal (Passover) Feast.

Easter is a moveable feast, which gives rise to the expression. It is not a fixed date like Christmas. It is calculated as the first Sunday after the full moon following the Spring Equinox.

The Jews originally followed a lunar calendar not a solar one. Each Jewish month began with the new moon. The Jews calculated Passover as the 15th day (full moon) after the new moon signalling the month of Nissan (April).

The Jewish Passover commemorates the liberation for the Jews from slavery in Egypt. God sent Moses to free them and ten plagues to change Pharaoh’s mind. The last plague was the death of the first born. To be spared, God instructed the Jews to kill a lamb and smear its blood on the door lintels, so that Angel of Death would pass-over the house.

As Christian countries endured Lent as a period of fasting, they let their hair down before it started on Ash Wednesday. The party culminated on the Tuesday: Carnevale or, Mardi Gras.

In Renaissance Italy the celebrations became quite lavish. It was the party time when operas were performed. Opera houses were rowdy places where people gambled, dined and indulged in dark corners in liaisons amoureux, while their favourite superstars entertained on stage, often fighting with each other. Think of a Las Vegas casino.

Venice was a repressive society. Women were not allowed out in public. (Even in the 1700s Italians were scandalised by the amount of freedom English women enjoyed). There was a letter box in the Doge’s Palace where people anonymously denounced neighbours and friends to the Secret Police.

The only freedom Venetians had was during carnival when men and women were allowed to go about masked to preserve anonymity and thus could indulge without fear of reprisal.

During the 18th century, as Venice declined in economic importance, it re-branded itself as a party town… a sort of Las Vegas… when Las Vegas was still water meadows – an oasis in the desert. Carnival became a must see on the European Grand tour for spoiled rich aristocrats and as such grew ever more frenetic.

Mardi Gras on the other hand – now famous for the celebrations in New Orleans – was celebrated throughout Northern Europe under various names. Like Carnival it was the last feast day before the Lent fast – the day you traditionally consumed all the luxury goods in your possession – so you were not tempted to indulge.

Britain calls it Shrove Tuesday. Shrove is from the old word ‘shriven’ – to absolve – because you confessed your sins to be in a pure state for Lent. It is still celebrated as Pancake Day. Pancakes use milk and eggs… at one time luxury items… and so not considered appropriate foods for Lent.

Lent probably originated from a natural period of starvation in spring and the Church merely formalised it. Ironically spring can be the hardest season. Winter provisions are almost exhausted, domestic animals need all their resources to reproduce, and there are no new crops.

From about the 600s onward, Europe was in the grip of a period called the Mini Ice-Age, which lasted until 1850s when the glaciers in Norway and the Alps started to retreat. Summers were poor and sometimes harvests were ruined. Winters were so severe, the Thames, Seine and even the Lagoon in Venice, froze solid to such a depth ice fairs where held on them.

There were no modern farming techniques such as silage, crop rotation and growing root vegetables like swedes, beets and turnips for animal feed. Because farmers did not have the resources to feed livestock, most animals were slaughtered in autumn and their meat salted. Rats and mice often decimated foods stores and grain rotted in the cold wet winters. By early spring there was little left to eat and the first crops were still months away.

So remember this when you eat, drink and be merry…

For tomorrow you may be…

Happy Mardi Gras!

14 thoughts on “No. Don’t Stop the Carnival

  1. Reply D. Wallace Peach Feb 20,2018 4:21 pm

    Fascinating history, Paul. Your details always amaze me – how and why the traditions began, how they changed over time, and how they were justified and reasoned. Then they become set in stone as if they’ve always been that way. Thanks!

    • Reply Paul Feb 20,2018 11:22 pm

      Thanks Diana, I think that as world builders we need to keep one eye on how the traditions and stories that our characters believe came about…. I think waht I am trying to say is that not only do we need sketch our worlds broadly but also deeply. Does that make sense? Px

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  3. Reply Denzil Feb 15,2018 4:24 pm

    Hi Paul, a very informative post as always. I moved to live on the mainland of Europe (permanently, it appears) when I was 24, firstly in the Netherlands. As January turned into February, office talk began to include “Carnival”. Like you Paul, I thought of a travelling funfair, maybe a parade. How wrong I was. Carnival weekend turned out to involve the whole town dressing up and hitting the streets for nights of wild revelry way into the early hours. What I remember the most was the incredible temperature differences between the freezing cold outside on the streets and the suffocating heat inside the packed bars. I think this wild fluctuation led to much illness in the following days.

    • Reply Paul Feb 15,2018 11:15 pm

      Hi Denzil, thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed the post. I wonder if people thought the illness was worth the night of wild celebration?I think I would have when I was young! What about you?

  4. Reply Shehanne Moore Feb 14,2018 6:20 pm

    Paul you have excelled yourself. No idea about Easter, so learned a load. And PS, a nice change from Vally’s Day. Happy Mardi Gras to yah.

    • Reply Paul Feb 14,2018 11:55 pm

      Shey, so glad you enjoyed it. It would be lovely to revive Eostremonth as a genuine month long spring celebration. And a happy new Fat Tuesday to you too! Pxxx

  5. Reply Robbie Cheadle Feb 14,2018 4:41 am

    I didn’t know about the mini-ice age, Paul. That would definately have added to Europe’s woes but also their innovativeness so maybe every cloud has a silver lining.

    • Reply Paul Feb 14,2018 11:50 pm

      Hi Robbie the mini ice age is one of the most fascinating things(well it is if you happen to be a saddo like me!). The fact we are coming out of this period is one of the reasons people deny climate change is caused by humanity…. although there is a lot of otehr evidence such as rising Co2 levels caused by industialisation. During the mini ice age damp affected harvests for year after year over centuries leading to mass starvation, and grain contaminated with ergot mould, which not only lead to hallucinations but a painful horrific death. It was the source of the dancing sicknesses that swept across Euruope, and possibly the persecution of witches. As you say it really was a period where people’s backs were against the wall for generations, and as such led to much social unrest bringing in everything from constitutional monarchy and eventually democracy to the reformation. It is just a shame that change always is accompanied by countless suffering. Pxxx

  6. Reply sally cronin Feb 13,2018 11:01 am

    Brilliant Paul… we are all pagans originally until someone decided to appoint themselves the middleman and make a profit! I worship the sun and like chocolate so feel perhaps my origins are Aztec.. or similar. Off to sample some luxury items.. hugs xxx ♥

    • Reply Paul Feb 14,2018 11:37 pm

      I think Aztec is as good a religion as any to be Sally as you say They get sun chocolate and don’t forget Vanilla and chilies! Love PXXXX

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