Carnival and Its Origins
By “Awake!” correspondent in France
THE annual carnival in Nice had just come to an end. For more than a week the city had been in a festive mood: Floats lined the principal avenue, cardboard men with enormous heads and red complexions strolled down the streets, followed by dozens of flowered convoys full of young men and girls dancing and singing.
The streets echoed with the piercing cries of girls and women surprised by a shower of confetti. Many people donned grotesque masks, or otherwise disguised themselves. “His Majesty Carnival,” an enormous cardboard manikin with a crown on its head, presided over the festivities. Then, on the last day of the festival, this effigy was taken to the seaside and burned with great ceremony.
The celebration was over. Victory Avenue looked normal again. The stream of cars moved slowly along, while on the sidewalk the busy crowd went its normal way. Walking down the avenue, I kept thinking of the festival that had just ended. I had recently done research on the carnival, and could not help thinking about how widespread the celebration is and about its unusual origins.
A Riotous Festival
The carnival is celebrated in many cities throughout the world where the Roman Catholic religion is practiced. The celebration is generally characterized by the wearing of masks, by the processions, the songs and public festivities.
Carnival time is just before Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Roman Catholic forty-day Lenten season. During Lent, Catholics traditionally fast, eating only one full meal a day. The day before Ash Wednesday, called Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (in French, Mardi gras), is the final day of the carnival celebration. The carnival is really a wild affair in many places, often lasting three days, but sometimes several weeks. Newsweek reported:
“In the Rhineland, suddenly tolerant policemen hoisted prostrate drunks from the sidewalks and helpfully propped them up against the lampposts. ‘Es ist ja Karneval’ (It’s carnival time), they shrugged. . . .
“With reckless abandon (which invariably leads to a higher birth rate in October and November), West Germans kept their annual pre-Lenten binges going till the last minutes of Shrove Tuesday in the Rhineland and southern Germany. . . .
“In the Rhineland, . . . Karnevalfreiheit (carnival freedom) is legally recognized as an excuse for almost anything except homicide or drunken driving. . . . Munich, too, takes legal account of Fasching [carnival time] . . . ‘Go home together and forget about it,’ more than one judge has advised a divorce-seeking couple. ‘It was only Fasching.’”
That report about carnival time in Germany was made several years ago. Regarding last year’s celebration, Time magazine said: “It was to have been Munich’s gaudiest, bawdiest Fasching ever. . . . All was ready for Münchner to abandon themselves, as they always had, to a month of drinking, swiving—judges do not consider adultery grounds for divorce during Fasching—and foolery . . . This year, though, the party has been a flop.”
Why? What dampened the revelry in Munich? A local doctor, Emil Vierlinger, explained: “Today’s young people celebrate Fasching all year long. Any modern store sells more fantastic clothing, and they can dance more wildly and to louder music in any discothèque.” So in this age of abandon and immorality people no longer need the carnival as an excuse for riotous living, the doctor, in effect, reasoned.
But the revelry and wild abandon of the celebrators has not seemed to be dampened in many places. Time, February 14, 1969, reported: “Carnaval, as everyone knows, is the time when Brazil plunges into the world’s biggest binge, a wild four-day pageant driven by the intoxicating beat of the samba.”
The November 1971 National Geographic said of the celebration in Trinidad: “Carnival begins at dawn on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. The revelers, who have been ‘jumping up’ all night, flood into downtown Port of Spain as a parade—an eddying tide of man and music. Some wave green boughs, fertility symbols as old as mankind. Everyone dances to the dazzling rhythms of the steel bands.”
Connection with Lent
These carnival festivals may seem to you to be strange, religious celebrations, especially for a religion that professes to be Christian. ‘What connection does the carnival have with the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church?’ you may wonder. ‘From where did the word “carnival” come?’
The popularly accepted view is that the word “carnival” has to do with abstinence from meat during the Catholic fast of Lent. The word is said to be derived from the Latin carne vale, meaning “flesh, farewell.” Thus “carnival is the final festivity before the commencement of the austere 40 days of Lent during which abstinence from flesh meat is observed,” explains The Encyclopædia Britannica.
‘But what,’ a person might ask, ‘does the drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and reveling, so characteristic of carnival celebrations, have to do with the commencement of the Roman Catholic Lenten fast?’
There seems to be little connection, as sincere Catholics, who deplore these riotous celebrations, may be quick to acknowledge. Where, then, did such carnival customs originate, such as dressing up in masquerade costumes, “putting to death” the effigy of the carnival, getting drunk, reveling and having parades with floats that sometimes resemble ships on wheels?
German Name Significant
In Germanic countries Fasching, also called Fastnacht or Fasenacht, is the name given to the festival just preceding Lent. The term is understood to derive from fasen or faseln, which means ‘to talk nonsense,’ ‘to drivel.’ Therefore Carl Rademacher, as director of the Prehistoric Museum in Cologne, noted that the German name for the festival “would thus denote a feast of folly, revelry, licence.” And as Rademacher pointed out, this name “corresponds well enough with many customary features of the Carnival.”
The plays that are featured during Fastnacht seem to substantiate the derivation of the festival’s name from words meaning ‘to talk nonsense.’ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend says: “The Fastnacht plays developed out of the burlesque songs and antics of the masqueraders who followed the ancient Teutonic ship-wagon processions.” Carl Rademacher also observes: “We find repeated references to the use of such ship-waggons in German towns during the Middle Ages.”
Those processions that followed a ship on wheels were reported to have been riotous affairs. A monk told of a festival in the year 1133 in which a ship cart was taken from Aachen in Germany into Holland attended by a great procession of men and women. Naked except for a short shirt, the women danced, says the monk, ‘in devilish wantonness’ around the ship cart.
Could such processions be connected with today’s carnival festivals, which also feature masqueraders, dancing, wantonness, and sometimes, as in the Nice carnival, floats in the form of ships? Where may the ship-cart processions have had their origin?
Another Meaning of “Carnival”
Interestingly, a number of reference works give an alternative derivation of the word “carnival.” For example, Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend says: “Carnival is explained as . . . derived from carrus navalis, cart of the sea, a boat-shaped vehicle on wheels used in the processions of Dionysus (later in other festival processions) and from which all kinds of satirical songs were sung.”
Could this derivation of the word “carnival” from carrus navalis be the more accurate one? After considering the festivals of many ancient peoples, which featured ship wagons, promiscuous dances and masquerades, Carl Rademacher concluded that this derivation “has thus a good deal in its favour.”
Rooted in Paganism
But regardless from where the word “carnival” may actually be derived, the evidence is clear that this pre-Lenten festival is of pagan origin. The Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, explains:
“The Athenian processions with the ship-cart were held in honour of the god Dionysus. The worship of Dionysus had its Roman counterpart in the Bacchanalia, as also in the Saturnalia and Lupercalia—festivals which in the later Roman period were characterized by wanton raillery and unbridled freedom, and were in a manner a temporary subversion of civil order. This general spirit, together with certain special features, was transmitted to the Carnival in particular, and this explains why that festival has assumed its peculiar character in regions where Roman civilization reigned supreme.”—Vol. 3, page 226.
That the carnival celebrated in Catholic lands is actually an adaptation of ancient pagan festivals is also noted in The Encyclopædia Britannica, in its eleventh edition. This source also explains the attitudes of the popes toward this festival, saying:
“Anciently the carnival was held to begin on twelfth night (6th January) and last till midnight of Shrove Tuesday. There is little doubt that this period of licence represents a compromise which the church always inclined to make with the pagan festivals and that the carnival really represents the Roman Saturnalia. Rome has ever been the headquarters of carnival, and though some popes, notably Clement IX. and XI. and Benedict XIII., made efforts to stem the tide of Bacchanalian revelry, many of the popes were great patrons and promoters of carnival keeping.”—Vol. 5, page 366.
‘But why,’ you may ask, ‘have religious leaders, who have claimed to be Christian, condoned and even promoted a festival that is of pagan origin?’
It is because of the deep entrenchment of these pagan festivals among ancient peoples. They were so popular that people were not inclined to give them up. So the Church compromised, permitting the people to retain their festivals, but gave these festivals a different significance, associating them with Church teachings such as Lent. James Hastings’ Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics explains:
“By way of effecting a desirable change in the character of long-established popular festivals which could not be summarily abolished, the Church adopted the plan of providing them with Christian motives—a procedure which was very largely adopted in the case of the Carnival festivities.”
Execution of “His Majesty Carnival”
As already mentioned, here in Nice a huge manikin of “His Majesty Carnival” is, at the end of the carnival, taken to the seaside and burned. This is a concluding feature of many carnivals. From where may this custom have originated?
Interestingly, there is a remarkable parallel of this feature of the carnival with the ancient pagan festivals. Regarding this James G. Frazer, in his well-known work The Golden Bough, observes:
“The resemblance between the Saturnalia of ancient and the Carnival of modern Italy has often been remarked; but in the light of all the facts that have come before us, we may well ask whether the resemblance does not amount to identity. We have seen that in Italy, Spain, and France, that is, in the countries where the influence of Rome has been deepest and most lasting, a conspicuous feature of the Carnival is a burlesque figure personifying the festive season, which after a short career of glory and dissipation is publicly shot, burnt, or otherwise destroyed, to the feigned grief or genuine delight of the populace. If the view here suggested of the Carnival is correct, this grotesque personage is no other than a direct successor of the old King of the Saturnalia, the master of the revels [who, at the end of ancient pagan festivities was also put to death].”
A Festival for True Christians?
Does the fact that the carnival has been accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, even being approved and promoted by various popes, make it a Christian festival?
Well, you might ask yourself: Can you imagine Jesus Christ or his apostles sharing in the festivals with which the carnival originated, being a party to the drunkenness, immorality and wild dancing of those ancient festivities? If not, how can a person be a true follower of Christ and share in modern-day carnival festivities? Consider the Bible admonition:
“Do not become unevenly yoked with unbelievers. For what fellowship do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what sharing does light have with darkness? Further, what harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what portion does a faithful person have with an unbeliever? And what agreement does God’s temple have with idols? . . . ‘Therefore get out from among them, and separate yourselves,’ says Jehovah, ‘and quit touching the unclean thing,’ ‘and I will take you in.’”—2 Cor. 6:14-17.
Surely, obedience to this Bible admonition would require that one refrain from having any part in the carnival, which originated with pagan festivals that God considers unclean.