A Brief History of Carnival

Carnival is one of the best known and oldest traditions to date where cities the world over hold Carnival celebrations before the Catholic time of Lent, which is a time of fasting, self-denial, and prayer. Cities in each continent hold colorful Carnival celebrations each year, with Brazil actually holding the Guinness Book of World Records title of being the largest Carnival celebration in the world.

The exact beginnings of Carnival are still in dispute, but one thing’s for sure – it’s been around a while. The origins of Carnival as we know it today began in medieval Italy, but many of the rituals that are the make-up of this festival date back to pre-Christian times. For instance, the elaborate masked costumes featured in Carnival celebrations are thought to date back to Swabian-Alenannic carnival. Roman Festivals, such as Saturnalia and Bacchanalia, are also thought to have contributed to Carnival.

The Carnival celebrations that really laid the groundwork for present day Carnival began in Venice, Italy. From there it began to spread and take root all over Europe, including France, Portugal, Germany, and Spain, eventually making its way into North American, Latin American, and Caribbean cultures. The celebrations in these areas of the world are probably the ones you are most familiar with, such as Mardi Gras in Louisiana, Carnival in Brazil, and Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago.

How Carnival obtained its name is still in dispute. It’s widely believed that it comes from the Italian word Carne, which means meat, and that it possibly even further derived from the Italian phrase carne levare, which means “to remove meat”. This makes sense because it was common to refrain from eating any form of meat during Lent. Other scholars believe Carnival’s name originates from the Latin expression carne vale which means “farewell to meat” or “farewell to flesh”. There are also some historians that will argue that the name came from the Latin carrus navalis, meaning “ship cart”, and the Roman festival of Navigium Isidis, where celebrations were held to bless the start of the sailing season.

Whatever the true origins of Carnival may be – it’s a pretty phenomenal thing to be such a wide spread celebration of life, love, happiness, joy, and fulfillment that takes place in so many countries throughout the world.