Why is Carnival celebrated late in Milan? The origins of the Ambrosian Carnival

The Ambrosian Carnival it is a historical and religious event that is celebrated every year and involves the Archdiocese of Milan and some areas outside the Milanese capital. In these areas the Carnival period ends on Saturday following Shrove Tuesday because the Church observes the Ambrosian rite (named after Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the 4th century AD) instead of the Roman rite adopted in the rest of the Catholic world. There Lent it does not begin on Ash Wednesday, as in the Roman rite, but on the following Sunday. Consequently the Carnival period, which must end immediately before Lent, ends on Saturday (this year, therefore, the February 17).

The origins of the peculiarity are unclear. Probably, in the past some event, such as a war or an epidemic, prevented the “correct” date from being respected. What is certain is that Milan, like many other places, has developed specific traditions for its Carnival, the best known of which is the Meneghino.

The Ambrosian rite

In almost the entire archdiocese of Milan and in some areas of Lombardy, Piedmont and the Swiss Canton of Ticino, the Catholic Church observes the Ambrosian rite, instead of the Roman ritewidespread in all Catholic countries.

Spread of the Ambrosian rite (credits Dixy52)

The Ambrosian rite differs from the Roman one in some ways variations during the celebration of mass (for example, the Creed is not recited after the homily, but after the offertory), as well as for small differences in the sacred furnishings and vestments of the celebrants.

The ritual dates back to first centuries of Christianity, when a single liturgy for the entire Christian world did not yet exist. In the 6th century, Pope Gregory I established that all Western churches must follow the Roman liturgy, but the archdiocese of Milan, which enjoyed great prestige, was allowed to use its own rite. The authorization was confirmed in subsequent reforms of the liturgy.

The liturgical calendar and the “delay” in Carnival celebrations

The Ambrosian liturgical calendar presents some peculiarities: Advent (the period preceding Christmas) lasts six Sundays instead of four; there Lent it begins on the Sunday following Ash Wednesday and not on Wednesday itself, as in the Roman rite.

But why is Carnival in Milan celebrated afterwards? According to legend, the Ambrosian Carnival was celebrated late due to a request of Saint Ambrose, today the patron saint of the city, who, being far from Milan on a pilgrimage, asked to wait for his return to begin the period of penance. More realistically, scholars believe that the peculiarity is due to historical events (wars or plagues) that prevented the correct date from being respected.

Depiction of Saint Ambrose

The Lenten period is also in the archdiocese of Milan ends with Easter, as in the rest of the Catholic world. The date of Easter is the same as the Roman rite.

The date of the Ambrosian Carnival

Carnival doesn’t just last one day, but it’s a period that ends in Shrove Tuesdaythe highlight of the celebrations (which is sometimes incorrectly referred to as Carnival day).

Carnival is closely related to Lent: represents the time of celebrations and revelry before the “return to order”, characterized by penance and fasting. Therefore it must end immediately before the start of the Lenten period. In places that observe the Ambrosian rite, since Lent begins “late”, the Carnival period also ends later. In 2024, the last day of the Ambrosian Carnival is Saturday 17 Februaryfour days after Shrove Tuesday (February 13).

Carnival procession in 2009 (credits Effems)

The traditions and character of Meneghino

The celebration of the Ambrosian Carnival has undergone many changes over the centuries. Today the most important event is the procession Masked which crosses the streets of Milan from Porta Venezia to the Duomo.

The most popular character of the Carnival is Meneghino, a commedia dell’arte mask created at the end of the seventeenth century by the playwright Carlo Maria Maggi. Like many of his “colleagues” (Arlecchino, Pulcinella, etc.), Meneghino went from a theatrical character to a carnival mask.

Meneghino in a nineteenth-century print

Meneghino is typically depicted as a man of the people, animated by a sense of justice and charitable spirit. In the Carnival parades he is accompanied by his wife Cecca. The character has acquired great popularity and is considered a symbol of Milan, to the point that the adjective “meneghino” is sometimes used as a synonym for “milanese”.