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!