Carnival is a Western Christian festive season that occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. The main events typically occur during February or early March, during the period historically known as Shrovetide (or Pre-Lent). Carnival typically involves a public celebration and/or parade combining some elements of a circus, masks, and a public street party. People wear masks and costumes during many such celebrations, allowing them to lose their everyday individuality and experience a heightened sense of social unity. Excessive consumption of alcohol, meat, and other foods proscribed during Lent is extremely common. Other common features of carnival include mock battles such as food fights; social satire and mockery of authorities; the grotesque body displaying exaggerated features especially large noses, bellies, mouths, and phalli or elements of animal bodies; abusive language and degrading acts; depictions of disease and gleeful death; and a general reversal of everyday rules and norms.
The term Carnival is traditionally used in areas with a large Catholic presence. However, the Philippines, a predominantly Roman Catholic country, does not celebrate Carnival anymore since the dissolution of the Manila Carnival after 1939, the last carnival in the country. In historically Lutheran countries, the celebration is known as Fastelavn. and in areas with a high concentration of Anglicans and Methodists, pre-Lenten celebrations, along with penitential observances, occur on Shrove Tuesday. In Eastern Orthodox nations, Maslenitsa is celebrated during the last week before Great Lent. In German-speaking Europe and the Netherlands, the Carnival season traditionally opens on 11/11 (often at 11:11 a.m.). This dates back to celebrations before the Advent season or with harvest celebrations of St. Martin’s Day.
Rio de Janeiro’s carnival is considered the world’s largest, hosting approximately two million participants per day. In 2004, Rio’s carnival attracted a record 400,000 foreign visitors.
The Latin-derived name of the holiday is sometimes also spelled Carnaval, typically in areas where Dutch, German, French, Spanish, and Portuguese are spoken, or Carnevale in Italian-speaking contexts. Alternative names are used for regional and local celebrations.
The origin may be from the Italian word “carne” (meat) or “carrus” (car). The former suggests an origin within Christianity, while the alternative links to earlier religions.
Folk etymologies state that the word comes from the Late Latin expression carne vale, which means “farewell to meat”, signifying the approaching fast. The word carne may also be translated as flesh, producing “a farewell to the flesh”, a phrase embraced by certain carnival celebrants to embolden the festival’s carefree spirit. However, this interpretation is not supported by philological evidence.
The Italian carne levare is one possible origin, meaning “to remove meat”, since meat is prohibited during Lent.
Other scholars argue for the origin from the Roman name for the festival of the Navigium Isidis (ship of Isis), where the image of Isis was carried to the seashore to bless the start of sailing season. The festival consisted of a parade of masks following an adorned wooden boat, possibly source of the floats of modern Carnivals.
From the anthropological point of view, carnival is a reversal ritual, in which social roles are reversed and norms about desired behavior are suspended. Winter was thought of as the reign of the winter spirits that were to be driven out for the summer to return. Carnival can thus be regarded as a rite of passage from darkness to light, from winter to summer: a fertility celebration, the first spring festival of the new year.
Traditionally, a carnival feast was the last opportunity to eat well before the time of food shortage at the end of the winter during which one was limited to the minimum necessary. On what nowadays is called vastenavond (the days before fasting), all the remaining winter stores of lard, butter, and meat which were left would be eaten, for it would soon start to rot and decay. The selected livestock had in fact already been slaughtered in November and the meat would be no longer preservable. All the food that had survived the winter had to be eaten to assure that everyone was fed enough to survive until the coming spring would provide new food sources.
Several Germanic tribes celebrated the returning of the daylight. A predominant deity was during this jubilee driven around in a noisy procession on a ship on wheels. The winter would be driven out, to make sure that fertility could return in spring. A central figure was possibly the fertility goddess Nerthus. Also, there are some indications that the effigy of Nerthus or Freyr was placed on a ship with wheels and accompanied by a procession of people in animal disguise and men in women’s clothes. Aboard the ship a marriage would be consummated as a fertility ritual.
Tacitus wrote in his Germania: Germania 9.6: Ceterum nec cohibere parietibus deos neque in ullam humani oris speciem adsimulare ex magnitudine caelestium arbitrator – “The Germans, however, do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance.” Germania 40: mox vehiculum et vestis et, si credere velis, numen ipsum secreto lacu abluitur – “Afterwards the car, the vestments, and, if you like to believe it, the divinity herself, are purified in a secret lake.”
Traditionally, the feast also applied to sexual desires, which were supposed to be suppressed during the following fasting. Before Lent began, all rich food and drink were consumed in what became a giant celebration that involved the whole community, and is thought to be the origin of Carnival. The Lenten period of the Liturgical calendar, the six weeks directly before Easter, was originally marked by fasting and other pious or penitential practices. During Lent, no parties or celebrations were held, and people refrained from eating rich foods, such as meat, dairy, fat, and sugar.
While Christian festivals such as Corpus Christi were church-sanctioned celebrations, Carnival was also a manifestation of European folk culture. In the Christian tradition, the fasting is to commemorate the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the desert according to the New Testament and also to reflect on Christian values. As with many other Christian festivals such as Christmas, which was originally a pagan midwinter festival, the Christian church has found it easier to turn the pagan Carnaval in a catholic tradition than to eliminate it.  Unlike today, carnival in the Middle Ages took not just a few days, but it covered almost the entire period between Christmas and the beginning of Lent. In those two months, several Catholic holidays were seized by the Catholic population as an outlet for their daily frustrations.
In many Christian sermons and texts, the example of a vessel used to explain Christian doctrine: “the nave of the church of baptism”, “the ship of Mary”, etc. The writings show that processions with ship-like carts were held and lavish feasts were celebrated on the eve of lent or the greeting of spring in the early Middle Ages. The Catholic church condemned this “devilish debauchery” and “pagan rituals”. As early as the year 325, the council of Nicaea attempted to end these pagan festivals.
Many synods and councils attempted to set things “right”. The statements of Caesarius of Arles (470–542), which protested around 500 CE in his sermons against the Pagan practices, seemed to have formed the building blocks of the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum (small index of superstitious and pagan practices), which was drafted by the Synod of Leptines in 742 in which the Spurcalibus en februario was condemned.
Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) decided that fasting would start on Ash Wednesday. The whole Carnaval event was set before the fasting, to set a clear division between the pagan and the Christian custom. It was also the custom during Carnaval that the ruling class would be mocked using masks and disguises.
In the year 743, the synod in Leptines (Leptines is located near Binche in Belgium) spoke out furiously against the excesses in the month of February. Also from the same period dates the phrase: “Whoever in February by a variety of less honorable acts tries to drive out winter is not a Christian, but a pagan.” Confession books from around 800 contain more information about how people would dress as an animal or old woman during the festivities in January and February, even though this was a sin with no small penance. Also in Spain, San Isidoro de Sevilla is written complaint in the seventh century that people coming out into the streets disguised in many cases the opposite gender.
Gradually, the ecclesiastical authority began to realize that the desired result could not be attained by banning the traditions, which eventually led to a degree of Christianization. The festivities became part of the liturgy and the liturgical year.
While forming an integral part of the Christian calendar, particularly in Catholic regions, many Carnival traditions resemble those antedating Christianity. Italian Carnival is sometimes thought to be derived from the ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Bacchanalia. The Saturnalia, in turn, may be based on the Greek Dionysia and Oriental festivals.
While medieval pageants and festivals such as Corpus Christi were church-sanctioned, Carnival was also a manifestation of medieval folk culture. Many local Carnival customs are claimed to derive from local pre-Christian rituals, such as elaborate rites involving masked figures in the Swabian–Alemannic Fastnacht. However, evidence is insufficient to establish a direct origin from Saturnalia or other ancient festivals. No complete accounts of Saturnalia survive and the shared features of feasting, role reversals, temporary social equality, masks, and permitted rule-breaking do not necessarily constitute a coherent festival or link these festivals. These similarities may represent a reservoir of cultural resources that can embody multiple meanings and functions. For example, Easter begins with the resurrection of Jesus, followed by a liminal period and ends with rebirth. Carnival reverses this as King Carnival comes to life, a liminal period follows before his death. Both feasts are calculated by the lunar calendar. Both Jesus and King Carnival may be seen as expiatory figures who make a gift to the people with their deaths. In the case of Jesus, the gift is eternal life in heaven and in the case of King Carnival, the acknowledgement that death is a necessary part of the cycle of life. Besides Christian anti-Judaism, the commonalities between church and Carnival rituals and imagery suggest a common root. Christ’s passion is itself grotesque: Since early Christianity Christ is figured as the victim of summary judgment, is tortured and executed by Romans before a Jewish mob (“His blood is on us and on our children!” Matthew 27:24–25). Holy Week processions in Spain include crowds who vociferously insult the figure of Jesus. Irreverence, parody, degradation, and laughter at a tragicomic effigy God can be seen as intensifications of the sacred order. In 1466, the Catholic Church under Pope Paul II revived customs of the Saturnalia carnival: Jews were forced to race naked through the streets of the city of Rome. “Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators. They ran… amid Rome’s taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily”, an eyewitness reports.
Some of the best-known traditions, including carnal parades and masquerade balls, were first recorded in medieval Italy. The carnival of Venice was, for a long time, the most famous carnival (although Napoleon abolished it in 1797 and only in 1979 was the tradition restored). From Italy, Carnival traditions spread to Spain, Portugal, and France and from France to New France in North America. From Spain and Portugal, it spread with colonization to the Caribbean and Latin America. In the early 19th century in the German Rhineland and Southern Netherlands, the weakened medieval tradition also revive. Continuously in the 18th and 19th centuries CE, as part of the annual Saturnalia abuse of the carnival in Rome, rabbis of the ghetto were forced to march through the city streets wearing foolish guise, jeered upon and pelted by a variety of missiles from the crowd. A petition of the Jewish community of Rome sent in 1836 to Pope Gregory XVI to stop the annual anti-semitic Saturnalia abuse got a negation: “It is not opportune to make any innovation.”
In Rhineland in 1823, the first modern Carnival parade took place in Cologne, Germany. The upper Rhineland is mostly Protestant, as is most of Northern Germany and Northern Europe. Carneval, (Fasching or Fastnacht in Germany) mixed pagan traditions with Christian traditions. Pre-Lenten celebrations featured parades, costumes and masks to endure Lent’s withdrawal from worldly pleasures.
4.1.1 Cape Verde Islands
4.3.2 Bosnia and Herzegovina
4.3.5 Czech Republic
4.3.6 Denmark and Norway
4.3.9 Germany, Switzerland, and Austria
188.8.131.52 “Rheinische” Carnival (Fasching)
184.108.40.206 “Swabian-Alemannic” Carnival (Schwäbische Fastnacht)
220.127.116.11 Swiss Fasnacht
18.104.22.168 Other regions
4.3.19 Republic of Macedonia
22.214.171.124 Canary Islands
4.4 North America
126.96.36.199 Dominican Republic
188.8.131.52 Trinidad and Tobago
4.4.9 United States
184.108.40.206 Puerto Rico
4.5 South America
220.127.116.11 Rio de Janeiro
18.104.22.168 Salvador, Bahia
4.5.6 French Guiana
Giampaolo di Cocco (2007) Alle origini del Carnevale: Mysteria isiaci e miti cattolici (Florence: Pontecorboli)
Valantasis, Richard (2000) Religions of late antiquity in practice
McGowan, Chris and Pessanha, Ricardo. “The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil.” 1998. 2nd edition. Temple University Press. ISBN 1-56639-545-3.