Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Carnivals around the world

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day when Roman Catholic areas can witness in equal number people with ashes on their forehead and those with bags under their eyes. It is the first day of lent – the 40-day fasting period leading up to Easter. But it is also the day after Mardi Gras and the carnival week, a period of revelry which can lead to some serious hangovers at the finish.

This year I went to the carnival celebrations in Cologne, Germany – the largest street festival in Europe (pictured above). I think I’m going for a record at this point – I’ve now been to carnivals in six cities on three continents (I’m not sure if that’s a brag or an embarrassing confession). The carnivals that I’ve seen in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, New Orleans, Venice, Binche, Maastricht and Cologne have all been remarkably different – reflecting the diversity of the global Catholic community.

An American asked me yesterday if Europeans celebrate the “American holiday of Mardi Gras.” In fact it’s Americans who are celebrating the European tradition of carnival, with Mardi Gras just being a local New Orleans variant. Carnivals have been celebrated in Europe in the days before Lent begins for 1,000 years. The term comes from the Latin carne vale, which means “goodbye to meat”. Traditionally during Lent Catholics were supposed to refrain from drinking or eating rich foods such as meat, dairy, fats and sugar. They were also not to engage in any partying or celebrations, to mark the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. So in the days before Lent, all rich food and drink had to be disposed of.

The earliest carnivals were held in medieval Italy, and the party in Venice was historically the most famous. This is when people wear the richly decorated masks that the city has become famous for (pictured above left). The practice then spread to the rest of Europe, with many local traditions being incorporated from local folk or pagan traditions. Interestingly the practice of throwing blood oranges at people, which developed in Italy, can be seen today in Roman Catholic cities throughout Europe.

But when the Protestant reformation came in the 16th century, the reformers sought to expunge the Roman Catholic church of the opulence its traditions had acquired over the centuries. This, naturally, included festivals like carnival (and in some cases, the banning of Christmas celebrations). Lent also took on a decreased importance in the Anglican and Lutheran churches and therefore the need for pre-Lentin festivals diminished. In the United Kingdom the carnival celebrations morphed into ‘Shrove Tuesday’ traditions that involved using all of your flour – today celebrated as ‘Pancake Day’. On this day British people eat pancakes. But there is no partying. The pancake tradition is also observed in the Lutheran Nordic countries.

But in Catholic Europe, the carnival traditions continued. They were taken from Iberia and brought to the new world, celebrated most vigorously today in the Carribean and in Brazil. Over time the tradition in Iberia faded in importance, while it grew and diversified in Latin America.

In 2010 I visited both Salvador and Rio during carnival and observed amazingly different ways of celebrating in the two cities. The Salvador celebrations have a more Afro-Caribbean feel, with street parades full of drumming and no floats. Rio, on the other hand, was full of feathers and enormous floats. The Sambadrome, where the largest parade is held, was the largest public party I’ve ever seen.


Some cities in Spain and Portugal still have smaller carnival celebrations, the most well-known being in the Canary Islands and Sitges. In Portugal they’ve in recent years started to adopt some aspects of Brazilian-style Carnival celebrations, with sumptuous parades, samba and other Brazilian musical elements.

Mardi Gras traditions were brought to Louisiana from France, but today there is little in the way of carnival celebrations in the mother country. Although the carnivals of Nice and Paris were historically huge events, today they are a mere shadow of their former selves. Mardi Gras, on the other hand, has evolved into the most important event on the New Orleans calendar and the observance has spread throughout the United States.

Very specific carnival celebrations exist in Belgium and the Catholic areas of the Netherlands. In Binche, just south of Brussels, people don special costumes with masks called “Gilles” and throw blood oranges at each other (pictured left). I went to this carnival celebration last year and it was truly bizarre. In Maastricht, in the Dutch province of Limburg, a large carnival celebration is held that is very similar to the ones celebrated in Germany.

Today it is the Catholic states of Germany that have the most famous carnivals in Europe, with their crown jewel in Cologne. The Carnival week begins on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, called "The Women's Day" in commemoration of an 1824 revolt by washer-women. Women storm city halls, cut men's ties to symbolically castrate them, and are allowed to kiss any man who passes their way.

Two distinct varieties of Carnivals are held in German-speaking countries. The Rheinish Carnival is held in the west of Germany, mainly in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland Palatinate. The main festivities occur on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), famous for their parades and costume balls - as documented by this Der Spiegel slideshow from this year. The floats in Cologne and Dusseldorm tend to have a topical, satirical nature, like this float depicting the Iranian president splitting the UN building with a nuclear missile.

In the South, the Swabian-Alemannic Carnivals are called Fastnacht. These take place in Baden, Swabia, Switzerland, Alsace and Western Austria. These smaller celebrations are more animistic, representing the expulsion of the evil winter spirits and welcoming in the spring.

Other notable carnival celebrations include the Busójárás in Hungary, the Rijeka Carnival in Croatia, Užgavėnės in Lithuania, il-Karneval in Malta and the Goa Carnival in India. I suppose since I’ve already been to so many carnivals I should keep the tradition going. Maybe Goa next year?

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