Words by Phoebe Adlard

The first months of the New Year can feel a bit sad. We’re potentially coming down from festivity highs and are now faced with endless weeks of winter blues. In some parts of the world, however, the month of February gives way to colourful traditions and celebrations. Streets are filled with parades, music, costumes (and booze). In other words, it’s Carnival! 

The word carnival originates from the Latin word carnelevare, meaning “to remove the meat”. Traditionally Carnival was celebrated in Europe by Christians, during the days leading up to Lent. Lent is a 6-week period before Easter, during which some believers enter a strict fast and others choose to forego certain luxuries such as alcohol or meat to commemorate Jesus Christ’s 40 days in the desert. Carnivalesque expression, however, is much older than Christianity and can be traced back to ancient civilisations. In Ancient Mesopotamia, The Babylonians’ organised a spring festival of ‘Akitu’ to celebrate the rebirth of nature, while in western Antiquity, many “pagan” cultures dedicated celebrations to seasonal change. 

Carnival is a period of ‘freedom’, during which people can let go and indulge in celebration. In Europe of the Middle Ages, the Church promoted carnival as a visualisation of sin, during which people surrendered to their ‘follies’ and ‘desires’. The ‘fool’ was a symbol of evil and people would parade through the street wearing masks and costumes. Carnival parades and costumes were full of symbolic imagery. Animal and devil costumes are thought by some to have symbolised the inversion of the ‘civilised human’ into a primitive, savage being, while others argue this is suggestive only of their proximity with nature. The usage of masks also prevented animosity and removed social differences by hiding one’s identity. After the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, which split Christianity into different branches, carnival became less popular amongst the reformed. It was deemed irrational and disruptive, and some traditionally protestant cities in Europe remain carnival-free to this day. 

Carnival festivities on the streets of Cologne

Yet, as we know, carnivalesque celebrations aren’t limited to Europe. The Americas and the Caribbean are also rich in carnival-like festivities. The carnival in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans’ ‘Mardi Gras’ are world-famous events. Although these festivals may have been influenced by the arrival of Europeans, they have incorporated indigenous traditions and beliefs resulting in unique regional characteristics. 

Although carnival is celebrated in many other places, I have only experienced carnival first-hand in Germany where I was born and during a trip to Venice. In Germany, ‘Karneval’ officially begins on the 11th November but only really kicks off in February on the weekend before Ash Wednesday (“Aschermittwoch”, traditionally the first day of Lent). Celebrations commence with the Coronation of a ‘carnival prince and princess’ and parties, parades, costumes and music take over the streets from Thursday (“Weiberfastnacht”) to Tuesday in most big cities of the country. The Rhine area (an area of Germany that stretches out around the river Rhein) is the German Carnival hotspot. Cologne and Düsseldorf, two big cities in the area, are best known for their wild carnivals. There is a historic but jovial rivalry between the two. In Cologne, the carnival is considered to be the fifth season of the year, the locals call it the “fünfte Jahreszeit”. During this time, most pubs and bars have no closing time and people get drunk on the traditional beer, called “Kölsch” that is served in thin half-litre glasses. The ‘Kölner Karneval’ is considered to be one of the wilder carnivals in Europe. 

I grew up in Munich and have fond memories of this Winter fest. The capital of Bavaria, a southern region of Germany, also celebrates Carnival but calls it “Fasching”. Our street Carnival isn’t quite as elaborate as in the Rhein area but is still a much-loved yearly festivity. Although it’s pretty cold this time of year with temperatures dropping well below zero, we put on a costume, grab some confetti and head out onto the streets. The Fasching Week starts on a Thursday, called ‘Weiberfasching’ or Women’s Fasching. On this day people dress up and wander around the town, getting drunk, playing jokes and pranking each other. A custom consists of challenging women to cut off the neckties of passing men. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday festivities gradually increase and peak on Monday (“Rosenmontag”) and Tuesday (“Faschingsdienstag”). The city organises a small parade and a big open-air dance party on the ‘Marienplatz’ square. Roughly 800 carnival balls take place in grand theatres and hotels around the city, but the highlight of this season is the ‘Krapfen’, a pastry that resembles a doughnut but without a hole in the middle. The traditional Krapfen is filled with apricot jam and powdered with sugar. Many different variations exist and are limited only by the baker’s imagination but can include cream, chocolate, coffee, and even fruit.

In contrast to the ‘rowdy’ German celebrations, the Carnevale di Venezia is a more ‘refined’ celebration that focuses on aesthetic, music and art. The Carnevale is one of the oldest and most famous carnivals which takes place every year in Venice. The festivities start in February roughly two weeks before Ash Wednesday. This carnival is a spectacle and the city of Venice its stage. Every year you can watch as beautiful parades are orchestrated on the canals. During Carnival, Italians enjoy ‘Chiacchiere di Carnevale’ a typical sweet fritter covered in icing sugar. However, Venice is best known for its stunningly lavish masquerade costumes and masks. Traditionally the primary role of Venetian costumes was to abolish socio-economic constraints as the poor dressed as the rich, the rich dressed as the poor and people weren’t obliged to greet one another as their identity was hidden away by a mask. Remember the ball scene in Romeo and Juliet? This sense of freedom was expressed through colourful and flamboyant gowns and headwear still present today. The Carnival gained attention across Europe in the 17th century and has remained a tourist hotspot ever since. Whilst many artworks attempt to portray its mysticism and beauty, none have come close to being in Venice on Carnival day!

Unfortunately, revellers will have to stay at home and dream of the fun times they had celebrating carnival in the past whilst looking forward to a Covid-free future when we can all hit the streets again in silly costumes.

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