You’ve certainly seen images of it, and perhaps have been intrigued by it all. The masks, the loud music, the rowdy behavior, the overindulgence, but what exactly is Carnival? There’s more to it than the masks, right? And why even wear a mask? Well, I’m so glad you asked! Well, perhaps you didn’t, but here you are still reading about it so perhaps you have some curiosity about Carnival.
This year, on Wednesday March 1st, Catholics will celebrate Ash Wednesday. Though the date changes every year, Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, the 40 days (minus the Sundays) before Easter. As Catholic tradition has it, Lent should be a period of sacrifice, consisting of abstinence, self-denial and fasting. Well, if one is aware in advance that the next 40 plus days are going to be sacrificial, what better way to prepare for them than going out with a bang? And that’s precisely what Carnival is: a Pre-Lent period of celebration, festivities, gluttony and over-indulgence.
Celebrated with parties, music, dancing, parades, alcohol and excess foods, most of which are less than healthy and theoretically not eaten during lent, Carnival can last anywhere from a week to several weeks. Revelers, young, old and anywhere in between, take to the streets in celebration of what is sure to be a grand old time. The term Carnival is believed to come from the Latin terms “carne” and “vale” – or the removal of flesh. One could safely assume that implies the removal of meat from your diet, as well as pleasures of the flesh. Carnival was also a good a way to remove all those foods that were to be off limits during lent, from the home. Meats, fried foods, sweets and other gluttonous ingredients were off limits, so the best way to quickly dispose of them would be to throw a party! Out of sight, out of mind, so no temptation during Lent.
In one way or another, Carnival is celebrated in many parts of the world. New Orleans has Mardi Gras and Rio de Janeiro has perhaps one of the wildest Carnival parties around. But of course, being Italian, my own personal favorite is celebrated in Venice. I will admit, I have never been to Venice during Carnival season. I’ve been there during the summer, and have added returning during Carnival to my “life list.” (Yes, I call it “life list” – bucket list is just so dreadful and morbid!) After all, some 3 million people visit Venice during Carnival, what’s one more, right?
Venice has been celebrating Carnival “on again, off again” since 1162. Having just won their victory over the Patriarch of Aquileia, Venetians took to the streets for celebration. Masks were always important to Venetians, and they were permitted to wear them from the day after Christmas until the day before Ash Wednesday. Also worn during other times of the year, it wouldn’t be unheard of for Venetians to wear masks for upwards of six months of the year! Masks permitted the generally reserved and “high society” Venetians to partake in risky business, such as gambling, or mingling with the higher class. Masks took one out of character and allowed one to become someone else, if only while wearing the mask. Transgressions were not unheard of while wearing the mask.
There certainly isn’t a lack of entertainment in Venice during this time of year, and this can last anywhere from 12 to 14 days, leading to Ash Wednesday. St. Mark’s Square becomes a festive and joyous piazza filled with locals and tourists alike wearing masks and costumes. Food stalls are common selling local items such as the famous peach Bellinis to frittelle, or fried dough. Seeing as we’re not going to be enjoying any of these during Lent, now’s the time! (If you’re looking for a great recipe eaten during Carnival, be sure to check this recipe for Chiacchiere out!!) Many events are family-friendly and free, while some require tickets and an admission fee. Many parades include children dressed as cartoon characters. Music festivals fill the streets and “invite only” masquerade balls are also very common.
If you’re like me and plan on adding Carnival in Venice to your “life list,” be sure to plan ahead. Hotels book early as this is their peak season, and some events require tickets that sell early and fast. Many balls can be very expensive but numerous hotels host their own masquerade balls, so this may be a great option. Fancy dress-up gowns can be rented, though I advise buying a mask and keeping it as a souvenir. They are wonderful ornamental items that can be carefully displayed on your wall. They make for a great addition to any home office.
But remember; don’t get too risqué while wearing your mask. You may be wearing a mask today, but don’t do anything you wouldn’t be able to look yourself in the mirror for tomorrow!
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