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Today is the last day of the Christian festival of Carnival, a time of celebration, merrymaking and (virtuous) indulgence before entering into the liturgical season of Lent.
While phrases like "Fat Tuesday," "Shrove Tuesday" and "Mardi Gras" are familiar enough today, Carnival is far older, and its Christian purpose is far clearer. Although most people today may associate Carnival with excess, gluttony or even licentiousness, the true purpose of the feast is to give thanks for the gifts God has given and to better appreciate the fasting to come. Although the exact origin of the word "carnival" is unclear, it's most likely derived from the Latin phrase carne vale (farewell to meat), denoting the feast's inherent connection to Lent.
Although its exact historical origins are somewhat obscure, historian John Bossy asserts that Carnival was instituted as a festival in either the very late 1100s or the early 1200s. He wrote of Carnival celebrations, "These were, despite some appearances, Christian in character, and they were medieval in origin: although it has been widely supposed that they continued some kind of pre-Christian cult, there is in fact no evidence that they existed much before 1200."
Some have supposed or claimed that Carnival was simply a Christian version of older pagan festivals celebrating the coming of spring. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, participated in a celebration called Bacchanal, named after the god Bacchus (aka Dionysius), according to the Greeks. This celebration was meant to welcome the ending of winter and often included excessive drinking and sexual debauchery. The ancient Egyptians maintained a similar practice called Sham El-Nessim. This Egyptian feast was meant to celebrate the driving out of the "winter spirits." Pre-Christian Germanic tribes celebrated the coming of spring as a time of fertility, resulting in sexual festivities.
Carnival did not derive from such festivities, though it may have sanctified some local practices of cultural significance and included them in the feast. In his essay "The New Paganism," prolific Catholic author Hilaire Belloc notes that pre-Christian paganism was not a rejection of Christianity but an absence of it. As such, the culture, art and beauty of pre-Christian pagans may be, in a sense, baptized and made Christian, without losing any of its former self — but actually gaining. Rome is a prime example of this. In fact, Belloc argues paganism was specially prepared to accept Christianity. Pre-Christian culture and folk customs may have been incorporated into the celebration of Carnival, but the feast itself is uniquely Christian.
Far from being a time of wanton excess or gluttony, Carnival is a time for appreciating the gifts God has given us: namely, food and drink. In the medieval ages, peasants and nobility alike would store up food for the winter. As spring grew nearer, the leftovers from these winter stores were in danger of spoiling. Carnival encouraged Christians not to let that food go to waste but to feast on it, in preparation for the Lenten season of fasting.
Carnival likely originated in Rome, the heart of the Christian world. From there, it spread across almost the whole of Europe: Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and the Netherlands. In many places, there were parades. A common image associated with Carnival is a float (or cart, back in the medieval era) shaped like a ship. This was a specifically Christian motif, as the Church was (and still is) often likened to a ship. Masquerade balls were also popular, especially in Venice, where wealthy nobility would invite the poor into their homes to feast.
When European settlers Christianized the New World, the feast of Carnival came with them. Natives would bring their own celebratory cultural customs to the festival, which is still celebrated today in Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Trinidad and even parts of the United States. Carnival came to England and Ireland in the 1900s, when Caribbeans rushed to London and Belfast to fill labor shortages.
Carnival is more than just a time of feasting; it's a time of preparing to fast. Lent is more than just a liturgical take on New Year's resolutions.
G.K. Chesterton is credited with quipping, "He who does not know how to feast does not how to fast." In the season of Lent, we are to die to ourselves, to our fleshly passions and appetites, to unite ourselves to Christ as we commemorate His own suffering and death for the sake of our sins. Carnival isn't a "last hurrah" indulging in sin and excess; it's living so that we might die. It's also a reminder, before dying to ourselves in Lent, of what awaits at the end of those forty days: life eternal. Just as Carnival is about more than mere indulgence, Lent is about more than mere fasting — Lent is dying to ourselves so that we might rise with Christ.