The ritual of ‘Carnival’ has been a prominent institution of cultural life since well beyond the days of antiquity—Ancient Greeks and Romans honoured deities Dionysus and Bacchus with wine feasts and orgies; Germanic Tribes chased wild winter spirits during the smoky nights of the ‘Rauchnachte’; Christians continued on with festivities of their own, with countless offshoots of festive tradition sprouting up over the past two millennia.
In modern times, every year around mid-February in the lead up to the fast of ‘lent’, almost every nation that observes the Christian rite celebrates ‘Carnival’, each in their own unique style and set of customs. Where exactly does the term ‘Carnival’ come from? Derived from the Latin term carne vale (‘farewell to meat’), many take it as a nod to the final week before the fast of lent, in which consuming meat was forbidden. Carne also means ‘flesh’—the phrase ‘farewell to flesh’ a neat mantra too, encouraging people to let go of their ‘physical, fleshy selves’ and become fully entranced by their Carnival spirit.
In Europe, Carnival is a cherished time. While different from nation to nation, the core ingredients remain the same—a spectacular array of dancing, disguise, consumption, revelry and good old-fashioned mayhem. Of all the most human rituals, the urge to cut loose, get merry and celebrate in public as loudly and raucous as is humanly possible remains one of the strongest.
Here’s a brief snapshot on where to go to experience some of the action:
The Germans are in a league of their own when it comes to conviviality, The Deutsch ‘Karneval’ or ‘Fasching’ season (fondly regarded as the ‘fifth’ season of the year) kicks off each November 11th at precisely 11:11 a.m—it carries through Advent, Christmas, Sylvester, all the way through to the start of lent. One of the largest Carnival’s in Germany is the Cologne Karneval.
During the ‘crazy days’ between (Weiberfastnacht) and Ash Wednesday (Aschermittwoch) Cologne metamorphoses into a wild melange of dress ups, street partying, drinking and dancing. The revelry peaks on Rose Monday (Rosenmontag) with the annual parade, a 6-kilometre spectacle of floats with thousands of performers, horses, bands, not to mention the ritual hurling of flowers (Strüßjer) and sweets (Kamelle).
A cherished Karneval institution is ‘the Dreigestirn’, a trio of rich locals who dress as the Jungfrau, Prinz, and Bauer—aka Virgin (‘Her Loveliness’), Prince (‘His Madness’) and Farmer (‘His Heftyness’). Rulers of the festival for the week, chief duties of this merry troika include leading parades and flaunting about in flamboyant, feathery get-ups.
With major events taking place in Cadiz, Las Palmas, Santa Cruz, Tenerif, Tarragona, and Sitges (just to name a few), Spain is far from lacking when it comes to Carnival action. Aside from the masks, dancing, drinking and partying (all par for the course), Spain is host to some of the more unique Carnival customs—the ‘Entierro de la Sardina’ hosts a funeral for a giant sardine; while in Villanova i la Geltru, old and young mill about in town squares to hurl sweets at each other in an all-out sugar battle, culminating in a midnight meringue skirmish.
With a keen emphasis on pyrotechnics, the Belgians are fond of indulging in some rather hefty Carnival festivities. Dating back to the 14th Century, the ‘Carnival of Binche’ is perhaps their most notable, a traditional celebration held three days before lent involving not just excessive dancing, drinking and consumption, but also the ritualistic hurling of blood oranges into jolly crowds.
Italy enjoys many strong and long-lasting Carnival traditions, the largest and most well frequented being those held in Venice and Viareggio. The Carnevale di Venezia dates as far back as 1268, though lawmakers and authorities tried to thwart the subversive festival countless times throughout the centuries. Elaborate leather and porcelain masquerade-style masks (aka Venetian masks) remain a prominent idiosyncrasy.
A more modern affair, with the first event taking place in 1873, the Tuscan Carnival of Viareggio is perhaps just as revered as its Venetian counterpart—masks, costumes and huge satirical paper mache floats make Viareggio’s offering one of Europe’s, and Italy’s more raucous celebrations.
The Masopust Festival in the Zizkov district of Prague 3 deliver’s the relatively atheistic Czech Republic’s major Easter Carnival event. Masopust is the counterpart to the English ‘Carnival’, also translating literally as ‘farewell to meat.’ Festivities are held outside Prague all over Moravia and Bohemia too, with wild street parties and revelry, sumptuous pork feasts, costumes, dancing and a customary display of facemasks to represent the ‘return of passed spirits’.
Carnival season in Greece is known as the Apokriés (also meaning ‘farewell to meat’). During the Carnival season, revellers disguise themselves as masqueraders (‘maskarádes’), while engaging in harmless pranks and general tomfoolery. The largest of all of Greece’s events is in Patras, the annual Patras Carnival—three days of music, concerts, street performers and parade floats. As in most countries, Carnival in Greece is a regional affair; one of the more intriguing is celebrated by the people of Tirnavos, whose customs are said to involve the curious mix of giant paper mache phalluses, spinach soup and potent alcohol—a winning mix!
In Denmark and parts of Scandinavia (most notably Norway) Carnival is traditionally held on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Here, Carnival is known as ‘Fastelavn’ and it functions as a kind of Nordic variation on Halloween where children don fancy costumes and set out on elaborate treat-hunting missions.
As in neighbouring Spain, Carnival celebrations are countless across Portugal, with each region stamping its own unique influence and set of customs on the time-tested event. Traditions in Portugal are varied, yet similar in their overall approach—the burning of oversize effigies, the creation and flaunting of elaborate costumes, flower battles, concerts and endless street dancing. As well as in Torres Vedras, Sesimbra and Madeira, thousands of visitors flock each year to the Carnival in Ovar, by Porto—one of the country’s most cherished parades replete with floats, performers and eclectic music.
Written by Cam Hassard for Europeupclose.com