Carnival, when and why it is celebrated and what is the meaning of the masquerade party

Carnival is the period that precedes Lent and has its culmination on the day of Shrove Tuesday. In countries of Christian tradition it is celebrated between February and March. This is a so-called “movable feast”, because it varies according to Easter: technically it begins 70 days before Easter; this year the celebrations began on January 28th and end on February 13th (Shrove Tuesday), while Lent officially begins on February 14th (Ash Wednesday).

Carnival is the celebration of excesses and recklessness: a period in which “he lets us go”, we dress up and celebrate. In many places allegorical floats are also set up, which sometimes serve to express political-social satire. Carnival precedes Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesdaythe day following Shrove Tuesday, and represents not only the return to order, but also a period of abstinence.

The celebration has origins in holidays pagan in which the social order was symbolically overturned. Pagan traditions remained alive after the advent of Christianity and gradually were accepted by the Church. Many carnival customs originate inMedieval and Renaissance Italyfrom which they spread to Europe and the world, but over time specific traditions have established themselves in numerous locations across the planet.

How to calculate the dates on which Carnival falls

Carnival it doesn’t just last a daybut the duration of the “Carnival time” it changes depending on the countries and places. A tradition has it that it begins seventy days before Easter and lasts 23 daysthe last of which is the Shrove Tuesday, the day that represents the culmination and end of the celebrations (sometimes called, incorrectly, Carnival day). However, there are different traditions and today Carnival time is also determined by commercial reasons. What is certain is that the central moment of the celebrations is the fat week, which runs from Thursday to Shrove Tuesday. The adjective “fat” derives from the fact that in the past, all the delicious foods in the house were consumed during the week, as it was forbidden to eat them during Lent.

The date of the Carnival period is linked to that of Easter and, therefore, it is mobile. In fact, Shrove Tuesday falls 47 days before Easter and, consequently, between February 3 and March 9 (Easter is celebrated between March 22 and April 25).

The origins of Carnival: from a pagan festival to a Christian celebration

Carnival, like almost all Christian festivals, has origins in celebrations of the pagan religion. Greeks and Romans celebrated religious holidays, such as Dionysian in ancient Athens ei Saturnalia in Rome, in which the social order was overturned: those belonging to the humblest classes and even slaves could make fun of rich citizens, pretending to take their place.

The Saturnalia in a painting by Antoine Callet

These celebrations, according to a consolidated interpretation, represented the conclusion of a year (or a cycle) and preceded the beginning of the new cycle, in which order was restored. In some cases it was also widespread the custom of masqueradingwhich had the aim of showing oneself different from what one really was: for example, the poor could appear rich and vice versa.

The Church and the Carnival

After the advent of Christianity, the Church banned pagan celebrations, which they continued to exist as popular traditions. The ecclesiastical authorities were unable to prevent the celebrations and gradually accepted and accepted them “inserted” into the liturgical calendarlinking Carnival to the date of Easter.

In the middle Ages Carnival gained greater popularity, especially in Italy. In various localities, some customs became established, such as masks and floats, which later spread to Europe and the rest of the world.

When Carnival became popular: the Renaissance

During the Renaissance, Carnival became more popular. In some cities, such as in Medici Florence, the royal courts organized sumptuous celebrations with allegorical floats. Furthermore, in the 17th century, the masks of the Art commedya type of theater based on the presence of fixed characters, many of which became popular as carnival costumes: Arlecchino, Pulcinella, Balanzone and many others.

Harlequin (1671)

Furthermore, thanks to the European colonization of other continents, Carnival spread in many areas of the planetgiving rise to countless customs and traditions.

How Carnival is celebrated today

Today Carnival is predominantly one secular and commercial party, widespread throughout the Christian world and in some territories that were colonized by Europeans. It is not celebrated (at least, not on a large scale) in Arab-Muslim countries, China, India (with the exception of the state of Goa) and other non-Christian territories. In many countries, however, there are celebrations of the same type at other times of the year.

Allegorical float at the Massafra Carnival (Taranto)

In Christian countries, Carnival has given rise to very popular celebrations. In Italy, the best-known “carnivals” include those in Venice, Viareggio and Ivrea, but also in the rest of the world the occasion gives rise to large-scale events. The most famous is the Carnival in Rio de Janeiroin Brazil, which involves around two million people every year.