Carnival! A Flight From Life’s Problems?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Brazil
TWO press comments on carnival time in Brazil: “This will be a great carnival. The greater the crisis, the greater the need for people to have a fling. They say that the last days of Pompeii were very high-spirited.” “Carnival allows people of all ages and social levels to forget for a few days their usual problems.”
Who is there that does not need to relax from time to time? To do so, thousands head for the beach or for the mountains, pursue their favorite hobby, or just do a bit of light reading. But what about carnival? Is it a good chance to flee from everyday problems of life? At the mere thought of carnival, many feel their feet beginning to tingle and their body to sway with the rhythm of the samba. Is it an innocent festival? What is its fruitage?
The “spirit of carnival” emerges once a year in many countries. The festivities generally run from Saturday through Tuesday just before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. In the United States the most popular carnival is in New Orleans and is known as Mardi Gras (meaning “Fat Tuesday,” since it was customary to use up all the fat in the home before Lent began). Carnival has also been a traditional festival in many cities in Europe and South America: Paris, Nice, Rome, Venice, Munich, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, to name just a few. However, as the Delta Larousse encyclopedia (Portuguese) says, “The one in Rio de Janeiro is considered the most animated.”
In all the carnivals, you will find plenty of music, dances, masks, fancy costumes, parades with extravagant floats, and, above all, much “freedom.” As the words of an old Brazilian song say, “I’m going to kiss you now, but don’t get me wrong, today is carnival.” Along the same lines, some years ago Newsweek commented: “In the Rhineland, . . . Karnevalfreiheit (carnival freedom) is legally recognized as an excuse for almost anything except homicide or drunken driving.” And Time reported that “judges [in Munich] do not consider adultery grounds for divorce during Fasching [carnival time].” It is a day to forget your worries, to flee from your problems—yes, it’s carnival time!
Carnival in Brazil
Brazil was discovered and colonized by the Portuguese who, along with millions of African slaves brought in during 300 years of lucrative slave trade, left their mark in carnival. The relish of these African people for rhythmic dance and song, accompanied by lively body movements, gave rise to the samba, a captivating, binary musical rhythm with syncopated accompaniment, sufficient to turn multitudes delirious in the huge street parades in Brazilian cities.
Especially in Rio de Janeiro, hotels are booked solid with tourists from all parts of the globe who have come to attend carnival celebrations, which culminate in the parade of the Samba Schools. In 1983 the government of Rio de Janeiro built, especially for these parades, two large, concrete grandstands with seating for about a hundred thousand people. But what is so special about the Samba School parade?
A Samba School is an association, or club, composed of perhaps thousands of samba dancers and enthusiasts—men, women, and children generally living in the same district. Each school has it carnavalesco, or director, who plans and designs the scenario, costumes, and basic music that will be used in the parade by the school. With this information, each dancer will then make up his (or her) costume and rehearse the basic dance steps.
But is today’s carnival just an innocent, festive occasion?
“The Other Side of the Festival”
Under this title Veja magazine of March 14, 1984, stated: “There always were gays in the Carnival, but what happened this time, in the Carioca [Rio] Carnival, was a decisive conquest of the activities. There, the greatest popular festival in the world was transformed into something that can possibly be distinguished as the greatest gay celebration on this planet. With the clear encouragement of the sponsors of the entertainment, Rio de Janeiro offered a marathon of nearly 20 carnival dances for homosexuals. From the United States came 230 gays in a chartered flight that brought them ready for anything to the door of the festival, in Galeão Airport. . . . Many things changed in this area, as can be seen, and, among them, the very definition of who were the stars in the show. In fact, the gays were not just openly accepted: They came to be admired and, as a result, solicited.”
In this same carnival, the federal government threatened to take action against certain television stations that, while transmitting carnival dances, showed on national networks “scenes of masturbation, frontal sex and various forms of sex[ual] intercourse.”
For many the “spirit of carnival” includes the idea that during those four days a person has a special license to do everything he would like to do the rest of the year but refrains from doing because of certain moral or social restrictions. During carnival, “anything goes” especially when alcohol flows freely. Commenting on this, the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo stated: “Another serious problem of carnival time is drunkenness. Doubtless due to increasing social tension, with the fatigue and dissatisfaction of modern man, drink is still a cheap means of flight, especially if the man has four days free. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that alcohol is not just a means of flight . . . Under its influence many follies and foolish acts are committed.”
Better Ways to “Get Away From It All”
Disappointed with what has happened to carnival, many former carnival enthusiasts, while still enjoying listening to a good samba, look elsewhere for ways to relax and to “get away from it all.” On holidays or long weekends, the highways leading from the large cities are jammed with cars heading for the beach or the mountains. The tremendous pace of this industrial world demands periods of relaxation and change. Even Jesus Christ, a perfect man, found it necessary to get away and relax. (Mark 6:30-32) However, can we imagine Jesus taking his disciples over to Rome to join in the Roman festival of the Saturnalia, which had a spirit similar to that of carnival today?
Soon within this very generation will come the time when there will be no need to “get away from it all” to forget the everyday problems of life. Such problems will simply not exist. Throughout the year, earth’s inhabitants will feel as did the ancient Israelites when they were freed from Babylon’s yoke to return to their own land. Concerning this, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “The whole earth has come to rest, has become free of disturbance. People have become cheerful with joyful cries.” (Isaiah 14:7) Such “joyful cries” will not be the result of alcohol or of licentious acts but, rather, will be from the sheer joy of living in a paradise earth under a righteous government.
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No one is sure of the origin of carnival. Its roots go deep into history, so there is much speculation. The Encyclopædia Britannica under the heading “Carnival” states: “The derivation of the word is uncertain, though it possibly can be traced to the Medieval Latin carnem levare or carnelevarium, which means to take away or remove meat. This coincides with the fact that carnival is the final festivity before the commencement of the austere 40 days of Lent, during which Catholics, in earlier times, abstained from eating meat. The historical origin of carnival is also obscure. It possibly has its roots in a primitive festival honouring the beginning of the new year and the rebirth of nature, though it is also possible that the beginnings of carnival in Italy may be linked to the pagan Saturnalian festival of ancient Rome.” Another opinion is that the word originates from “carnal pleasure.” And the Delta Larousse encyclopedia says: “The origins of carnival have been sought in the oldest orgiastic celebrations of mankind, including the Roman Saturnalias, of religious nature, celebrating the return of spring, which symbolized the rebirth of nature. Also the ritual origin of carnival masks has been traced as being related to the worship of the dead.”