This past weekend we were back in Rome and to our delight and surprise we found ourselves right in the middle of the Carnevale celebrations. As per usual, this involved people in costumes (not quite to the level of the famous Carnevale in Venice, but a valiant effort nonetheless), children in adorable mini costumes (very similar to Halloween in the states), and confetti. Lots and lots of confetti (see image above). I have always enjoyed these February festivities and nothing beats accidently and fortuitously stumbling into a gaggle of mini people dressed up as zebras and princesses chucking confetti everywhere. This year, however, I realized that I really had no idea what any of it had to do with the Catholic religion. So, I did a little research. Turns out, not much…not directly anyway.
Carnival or Carnevale, is a festive season (which is why I never know when it is) that takes place between January 6th and Fat Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday, the harbinger of Lent. Lent, to review, is the holiday that honors the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness and is typically a period of fasting (or at least a slight increase in the restraint practiced the other 325 days). So, for this February celebration, it’s all about getting that soon-to-be-off-limits stuff (into &) out of your system. People dress up and wear masks to break with the usual day-to-day routine and the main event usually involves a parade (basically a kind of Italian block party with a pinch of Cirque du Soleil thrown in). The act of wearing masks was actually very carefully controlled so as to reserve the special privilege for Carnival and a few other religious holidays. Mask makers in Italy even had their own guild as well as special privileges in society because of the importance of their craft.
The original Carnival may have been inspired by the need to dispose of all the off-limits sweets, meats, and fatty foods that would not be allowed during Lent and would otherwise go bad. It became a kind of team effort by the community to make sure no delicious morsel went to waste and voila! Carnival was born. This is why some argue that the word “Carnevale” comes from the Italian “carne + levare” or, “remove meat.” We may speculate, as many have, that this holiday also conveniently mimics the ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Bacchanalia (festivals in honor of the God of agriculture the God of wine, respectively) that similarly require a certain level of revelry.
Perhaps my favorite Carnival tradition (that similarly appears to have no real connection to anything religious) is the special food. There are all kinds of seasonal treats out for this (especially) indulgent time of year. Crowd favorites include, Chiacchiere, Schiacciata alla Fiorentina, and Le Fritelle di Riso (fried rice balls). All of them are bad for you and wonderfully delicious. Enjoy all of them whenever you are next in Italy for February (or follow the links and make them right now!)
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