The Bible’s Viewpoint
Carnival Celebrations—Right or Wrong?
“YOU just can’t resist it,” says Michael. “The music tears you from your chair, moves your feet, flushes your head—you’ve got carnival fever!” Indeed, each year carnival raises the heartbeat of millions around the world, but nowhere is the fever as hot as in the country where Michael lives, Brazil. During the week before Ash Wednesday, Brazil puts on its most splendid dress, throws away its clocks and calendars, and plunges into a spectacle that rocks the country from the Amazon forest to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. It’s a time to sing, to samba, and to forget.
“That’s one reason why it’s so popular,” explains Michael, who was an ardent carnival celebrator for years. “Carnival gives people a chance to forget their misery.” And especially for millions of poor—living without enough water, without electricity, without employment, and without hope—there is plenty to forget. To them carnival is like an aspirin: it may not cure the problems, but at least it numbs the pain. Add to this the view of carnival held by some of the Roman Catholic clergy—one bishop said that carnival is “very useful for people’s psychological balance.” So it is easy to see why many feel that carnival is a helpful and sanctioned distraction. What, though, is the Bible’s view of carnival celebrations?
Merrymaking or Revelry?
God’s Word says that there is “a time to laugh . . . and a time to skip about.” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) Since the Hebrew word for “laugh” may also be translated “celebrate,” it is clear that as far as our Creator is concerned, there is nothing wrong with our having a wholesome, good time. (See 1 Samuel 18:6, 7.) In fact, God’s Word tells us to be glad and rejoice. (Ecclesiastes 3:22; 9:7) So the Bible approves of appropriate merrymaking.
The Bible, however, does not embrace all sorts of merrymaking. The apostle Paul states that revelry, or boisterous merrymaking, belongs to “the works of the flesh” and that practicers of revelry will “not inherit God’s kingdom.” (Galatians 5:19-21) Paul admonished Christians, therefore, to “walk decently, not in revelries.” (Romans 13:13) So the question is, In which category does carnival belong—innocent merrymaking or licentious revelry? To answer, first let us further explain what the Bible views as revelry.
The word “revelry,” or koʹmos in Greek, occurs three times in the Christian Greek Scriptures, always in an unfavorable sense. (Romans 13:13; Galatians 5:21; 1 Peter 4:3) And no wonder because koʹmos sprouts from infamous celebrations well-known to Greek-speaking early Christians. Which ones?
Historian Will Durant explains: “A company of people carrying sacred phalli [symbol of the male sex organ] and singing dithyrambs [chants] to Dionysus . . . constituted, in Greek terminology, a komos, or revel.” Dionysus, the god of wine in Greek mythology, was later adopted by the Romans, who renamed him Bacchus. Yet, the koʹmos connection survived the name change. Bible scholar Dr. James Macknight writes: ‘The word koʹmois [a plural form of koʹmos] comes from Comus, the god of feasting and reveling. These revelings were performed in honor of Bacchus, who on that account was named Comastes.’ Yes, celebrations for Dionysus and Bacchus were the very embodiments of revelry. What were the features of these feasts?
During the Greek festivities honoring Dionysus, according to Durant, crowds of celebrators “drank without restraint, and . . . considered him witless who would not lose his wits. They marched in wild procession, . . . and as they drank and danced they fell into a frenzy in which all bonds were loosed.” In a similar vein, Roman festivals honoring Bacchus (called the Bacchanalia) featured drinking and lascivious songs and music and were the scenes of “very dishonourable actions,” writes Macknight. Thus frenzied crowds, heavy drinking, lustful dancing and music, and immoral sex formed the basic ingredients of Greek-Roman revelries.
Do today’s carnivals contain these revelry-producing ingredients? Consider a few quotes from news reports on carnival celebrations: “Extremely raucous crowds.” “A four-day spree of drinking and all-night partying.” “Carnival hang-over can last several days for some revellers.” The “near-deafening sounds at close quarters make the shows of ‘heavy metal’ groups . . . pale by comparison.” “Today, any carnival celebration without gays is like a steak au poivre without pepper.” “Carnival has become a synonym for complete nudity.” Carnival dances featured “scenes of masturbation . . . and various forms of sex[ual] intercourse.”
Indeed, the similarities between today’s carnivals and those ancient feasts are so striking that a Bacchus reveler would hardly miss a beat if he were to wake up in the midst of a modern-day carnival party. And that should not surprise us, comments Brazilian television producer Cláudio Petraglia, for he says that today’s carnival “originates from the feasts of Dionysus and Bacchus and that, really, is the nature of carnival.” The New Encyclopædia Britannica states that the carnival may be linked to the pagan Saturnalia festival of ancient Rome. So the carnival, while belonging to a different era, belongs to the same family as its predecessors. The family’s name? Revelry.
What effect should this knowledge have on Christians today? The same effect as it had on early Christians living in the Greek-influenced provinces in Asia Minor. Before becoming Christians they used to indulge “in deeds of loose conduct, lusts, excesses with wine, revelries [koʹmois], drinking matches, and illegal idolatries.” (1 Peter 1:1; 4:3, 4) However, after learning that God views revelries as “works belonging to darkness,” they ceased participating in carnivallike celebrations.—Romans 13:12-14.
Michael, mentioned before, did the same. He explains why: “As my Bible knowledge grew, I saw that carnival celebrations and Bible principles are like oil and water—they simply don’t mix.” In 1979, Michael made up his mind. He quit carnival celebrations for good. What choice will you make?
[Picture on page 14]
Pre-Christian Greek amphora depicting Dionysus (left figure)
Courtesy of The British Museum