From Venice to Rio de Janeiro, from Barranquilla to New Orleans, there is a celebration that every year crosses the barriers of age, gender, race and nationality and summons millions: the carnival. To trace its origin you have to make a long journey in time.
The historical origin of the holiday is unclear, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, which identifies two possible roots: festivals dedicated to the god Saturn in the pagan Roman Empire and a primitive celebration that “honored the beginning of the new year and the rebirth of nature.” “.
The New Carnival Company, an English non-profit organization, which places the most remote precedent in ancient Egypt, dates back to this antiquity. There, he affirms, a pagan festival called Sham El-Nessim was held, which celebrated the beginning of spring and in which the first seed of our festival is found.
Centuries later — with the campaigns of Alexander the Great through — the Greeks adopted the holiday, and then the Roma, the organization says. It was named Bacchanal, after the god Bacchus, also known as Dionysus (a “god of nature, fertility and vegetation, especially known as the god of wine and ecstasy”, as described by Britannica). Those parties featured abundant singing, dancing and wine and “excessive behavior,” says the New Carnival Company.
Other features of the carnival can be traced back to the Fiesta de los Locos, says the organization. In this popular celebration in the Middle Ages, a joke pope or bishop was chosen and ecclesiastical rituals were parodied, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. “People wore animal masks and women’s clothing, sang obscene songs, recited crazy speeches and ran like crazy through the streets,” says the organization that promotes the carnival celebration.
The party was banned in the 16th century, but modern carnivals inherited satire and ridicule.
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The Catholic tradition behind the carnival
As has happened with other pagan festivities, Christians adopted this festival and gave it its own meaning, which can be approached through words. Although its exact origin is “uncertain”, according to Britannica, it may come from two Latin expressions, carnem levare or carnelevarium, meaning to remove meat.
This coincides with the fact that Carnival is the celebration prior to the start of Lent, a 40-day period of austerity leading up to Easter in which Catholics abstained from eating meat, among other ascetic practices.
of masters and slaves
To understand the most popular modern carnival in the world, the one in Rio de Janeiro, among others, it is necessary to add another piece: African traditions.
With the arrival of Christopher Columbus to America and the conquest of the territory, the carnival crossed the ocean, explains the New Carnival Company.
Plantation owners celebrated until Ash Wednesday with parades through the streets and dances in costumes reminiscent of Old World traditions. Meanwhile, the slaves brought from Africa also celebrated festivals with their own traditions, which were linked to the burning and harvesting of sugar cane and where masks and mimicry were key.
Eventually, after their release, they joined the carnival celebration, which today is an amalgamation of different traditions in the world.
In the US, for example, Mardi Gras (Fat or Fat Tuesday), on the last day of the Carnival period, was first held in 1703, and the most iconic parade, the one in New Orleans, began in 1837. .