In some parts of the world Carnival begins on November 11th. In other places it starts the week before Ash Wednesday. For the members of the Samba schools of Rio de Janeiro and the Crewes of New Orleans, the planning begins as soon as this year’s Carnival has finished.
Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the final day of the celebration. The whole time of Carnival is a time of riotous activity, when there are no holds barred on behavior. Masked balls gave people an opportunity to disguise themselves and act out fantasies. The name Carnival derives from carne vale, “good-bye to meat,” as devout Catholics abstained from eating any rich foods during the six weeks of Lent.
Fat Tuesday is usually marked by the consumption of rich, fatty foods and especially meats. Each part of France has its own special dish: pigs’ trotters in Champagne, pigs’ ears in Ardeche, a leg of goat in Touraine. It’s also customary to serve various rich, deep-fried pastries and cakes including pancakes, fritters, waffles, eclairs, doughnuts and cream puffs. In Venice, the pastry of the day is galani, egg dough fritters, made with white wine, eaten cold and powdered with sugar. In Russia, the special food of the day is the blini, which is served with butter, caviar, sour cream and other rich toppings.
In New Orleans, the epicenter of American Mardi Gras celebrations, the King Cake is the special food item associated with the holiday. I love this blog describing an easy version made from biscuits which was posted at the website Cookie Madness. The King Cake is a ring cake decorated with purple, green and yellow, the colors of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A plastic toy baby is inserted into the cake as it bakes and the person who finds it is crowned the King or Queen of the party. This tradition obviously derives from the celebration of Twelfth Night or Epiphany, the end of the Christmas holidays.
In Finland, Shrove Tuesday or Laskiainen is a time for outdoor parties. Everybody lends a hand to build a toboggan slide, and children as well as adults take part in the fun. Lanterns and candles are hung in surrounding trees and afterwards everybody comes back into the house for pea soup and laskiaispulla, almond-filled Lenten buns for dessert. I got this illustration and recipe for laskiaispulla from this website.
In England, pancakes are the special food for Shrove Tuesday (the name comes from the word, “to shrive,” referring to the custom of confessing before the penitential period of Lent). It was said this allowed housewives to use up all the butter and fat before the diminished diet of Lent. Cristina Hole observes, :like hot cross buns, they have a long ancestry and are probably descendant sof the small wheaten cakes that were once made at pre-Christian festivals of early Spring.”
Carol Field describes a variety of Carnival celebrations in Italy. One of the wildest is celebrated in Ivrea which imports a trainload of blood oranges from Sicily for wild battles in the Piazza which leave the combatants bruised and dripping, while the gutters run with the red juice. In previous centuries, the items thrown included confetti (sugared almonds), candles, beans, caramels and coriander seeds rolled in plaster or flour and left to dry. Some of these make sense—the beans, for instance, recall the Roman feast of Parentalia when black beans were thrown to propitiate the ancestors—while the candles evoke the candles of Candlemas. Nowadays shaving cream is sprayed everywhere leaving everyone and everything covered in white foam.
Masked balls are part of Carnival celebrations in many places, but particularly in Venice and Germany. Pam Mandel, in her amusing chronicles of a winter spent in Austria, describes a sort of fancy debutante ball but in earlier times, the anonymity of masks and costumes allowed people to engage in licentious behavior that would normally be censured. Fasching is the name used in Germany and Austria for the masked figures, both grotesque and beautiful, that roam the street in search of food. Storace writes that in Greece, carnival provides an opportunity for free speech and uncensored social commentary. Costumes are used in this way, for instance to mock the pretensions of authorities. They also provide an opportunity for transvestism, not just sexual, but social, an opportunity to reveal what is normally hidden.
Celebrations of Carnival reached their height in Italy in the middle ages, especially in Venice. In 1214, in Venice, Carnival was celebrated with a sort of mock battle in which 12 noble ladies held a fortress which was attacked by assailants throwing flowers, perfumes and spices. Goethe attending a carnival celebration in Rome in 1787 wrote a beautiful passage about the effects of the candlelight processions of Shrove Tuesday which Carol Field quotes in her book on celebrations in Italy:
The darkness has descended into the narrow, high-walled street before lights are seen moving in the windows and on the stands; in next to no time the fire has circulated far and wide, and the whole street is lit up by burning candles.
The balconies are decorated with transparent paper lanterns, everyone holds his candle, all the windows, all the stands are illuminated, and it is a pleasure to look into the interiors of the carriages, which often have small crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, while in others the ladies sit with coloured candles in their hands as if inviting one to admire their beauty.
Sia ammazzato chi non porta moccolo. ‘Death to anyone who is not carrying a candle.’ This is what you say to others, while at the same time you try to blow out their candles….
Orloff’s description of Carnival customs still observed in Telfs in the Tyrolean Alps gives us a glimpse of some of the ancient aspects of this festival. At dawn, a baker, an innkeeper, a chimney sweep, and a peasant carry a golden sun on a pole through the village, begging the sun to shine down on the carnival. Later the Wilden appear, men and boys in grotesque masks and costumes of moss, representing winter. They roam the streets, drunk and riotous, attacking anyone who crosses them. There is a simulated bear hunt, then another procession headed by a lantern bearer whose role is to search for carnival in the darkness of winter. He makes room for the Schleicher, the spirits of spring. Each wears a fantastic hat, a mask showing the face of a young person and a giant bell. Each carries in his right hand a stick stacked with pretzels (symbols of the sun) and in his left a linen handkerchief. The Schleicher do a magic circle dance, with slow, deliberate steps, their bells awaken the slumbering earth. This is followed by a mock tribunal (making fun of local politics and gossip) and the squirting of the crowd with water from the mouth of the carnival baby.
Bulgarian carnival celebrations feature masked dancers known as koukeri or startsi (which means old man). They dance at dawn in groups of seven or nine and perform comic scenes from every day life. They are often accompanied by other characters such as a bride, a king or an Arab. In parts of eastern Thrace they dress in women’s clothing; in the Strandza mountains they dance on stilts. In some places they dance around a mast topped with a basket of straw which is ignited on the first day of Lent.
Like Groundhog’s Day, Shrove Tuesday is day for weather prognostication for the Pennyslvania Dutch who predict the height of the flax by the length of the icicles on Shrove Tuesday.
Bulgarian customs: http://www.eliznik.org.uk/Bulgaria/history/bulgaria_customs.htm
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1980
Hole, Cristina, The Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin Books 1976
Mandel, Pam, “Attack of the Jelly Donut,” http://nerdseyeview.tripod.com/austrianwinter
Orloff, Alexander, Carnival: Myth & Cult, Perlinger 1981
Root, Waverley, The Food of Italy, Vintage 1992
Storace, Patricia, Dinner with Persephone, Pantheon 1996
Yoder, Don, Groundhog’s Day, Staackpole Books 2003
The painting of the Ridotto is from Pietro Longhi.