Breaking Out into Carnival
In some places, these are days of colour and excitement. In some places these are days of ritual over-eating and sudden breaks from routine. In some places these are days to dance and be outrageous. And as I hustle and bustle and try to embed some of these traditions in my own home, despite their foreign-ness in Canada, I recall this song from 1987:
Don’t stop to ask
Now you’ve found a break to make at last
You’ve got to find a way
Say what you want to say
For the unitiated: It’s carnival-season: An explosion of excesses with ancient origins. The Lenten period of the Church calendar, is the name given to the six weeks directly before Easter. Lent was (and still is to an extent) marked by fasting and other pious or penitential practices, it’s a time to turn inward to reflect. Traditionally during Lent, no parties or other celebrations were held, and people refrained from eating rich foods, such as meat, dairy, fats and sugar. The forty days of Lent, recall the biblical account of the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, and serve to mark an annual time of turning.
In the days before Lent, all rich food and drink had to be disposed of. The consumption of this, in a giant party that involved the whole community, is thought to be the origin of Carnival. The origin of the name “carnival” is disputed. Variants in Italian dialects suggest that the name comes from the Italian carne levare or similar, meaning “to remove meat”. Other sources suggest it means “goodbye to meat” or more symbolically “goodbye to the flesh”.
In northern Europe Fastelavn is celebrated much with the same intention. Fastelavn is related to the Low-German word vastel-avent, or “The eve of Lent”. The last Sunday before Lent was designated as “Bacon Sunday” or Fastelavn-Sunday, the following Monday was blue Monday or Bacon Monday; and the last Tuesday before Lent white Tuesday or fat Tuesday which is the exact equivalent to the word Mardi Gras.
The Nordic Fastelavn swallowed up several earlier Pagan rituals dedicated to the shift from winter to spring. A surviving custom from pre-Christian times is the Mardi Gras Branch or fastelavnsris, that was used to awaken fertility.
In my home, we uphold the traditions of decorating the Mardi Gras Branch and make the typical sweet buns of Fastelavn: Sweet, fluffy and filled with whip cream and jam; an orgy of empty calories, but Oh so good.
The idea is to eat until you’re ready to repent and thus start the penitential season of Lent.
To get to really outrageous celebrations, however, I had to move much further south. The Carnival as it developed from Medieval times, was a set of popular practices that included wearing masks and costumes, overturning social conventions, dancing, sports competitions, parades, etc. Carnival would mean that a mask would protect you from the rules you would normally have to follow, and the mask would give opportunity to meet across social boundaries and classes, without being criticized. All was allowed and possible, if only for a few days. This tradition has been carried on particularly in Catholic countries.
The great expenditures and popular participation in The Venice Carnival must have left more than a few with regrets and economic hangovers. Wonderful costumes; lush textiles; incredible masks – and then the afterthought “was it really worth it”: The perfect backdrop for Lent.
I’ve never been to the Carneval in Rio de Janeiro, but from the pictures I’ve seen, I’d say the day after must be pretty much the same there.
It is this “breaking out” of the ordinary I so much like about this season. There may not be any incumbent need for overeating in an over-fed western world, but the endless repetition of our lives cries out for breaks and pauses, for opportunities to go outside of the tracks we’ve made for ourselves. The flatness of our paths screams for bumps and slides. Carnival is such a bump.
My living room, normally nicely colour coordinated, is now adorned with my Mardi Gras branches that defy coordination. There is nothing classy about them, their aim is to bring the gaudy and glittery in to my life.
My healthy cooking is now supplemented with pure gluttony. Tonight we ate the Fastelavn sweet buns, once again. Tomorrow is the time for the Italian “cenci” or “chiacchiere”.
I wonder if the names of the Italian cookies refer to the aftermath of Carnival: “Cenci” means “rags”; “chiacchiere” means “gossip”. Whatever is the case, I think we’ll be good and ready for ashes and penitence, come Wednesday.