TW Viewpoint | Where Did Carnival Come From?

July 22, 2022 | Javid Khan

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Carnival is celebrated each year in more than 50 countries. Fireworks pierce the night sky and the sound of soca or samba music fills the air. Colourful costumes adorn attendants as they dance and revel in their festivities. But the original purpose of these celebrations seem lost to time. What was the reason for these carnivals?

For many nations with a Roman Catholic history, carnival is one of the highlights of the year. In fact, while it is not an official holiday, countries like Trinidad and Tobago, traditionally recognize carnival as a non-working day and so, most businesses, as well as schools are closed. This form of celebration has embodied the culture of the people who observe these festivities.

"Carnival, in many ways encapsulates much of the culture of Trinidad and Tobago. It is a vibrant exposition of a people's culture and, because it has its roots in African traditions brought over to the New World by the slaves, it resonates with black people everywhere." (Bacchanal Is Not Carnival, Jamaica Gleaner.com)

However, the origin of the festivities cannot be separated from its celebration. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Carnival is described as:

"…the merrymaking and festivity that takes place in Roman Catholic countries in the days and hours before the Lenten season… This coincides with the fact that Carnival is the final festivity before the commencement of the austere 40 days of Lent..." (Carnival, Britannica.com)

While it is commonly known as carnival around the world, other places such as Guyana and New Orleans describe it as Mardi Gras. In Jamaica it is known as Bacchanal. Both these terms are interesting to take note of. Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday, is the pre-lent period in which all the fat-based foods in the home are consumed before they are given up for lent. Hence, the name Fat Tuesday. It is a time to over indulge before appearing holy.

Bacchanal on the other hand comes from Bacchanalia or Dionysia, a Greco-Roman festival honoring Bacchus, the god of wine.

"[Bacchanalia] probably originated as rites of fertility gods…were at first held in secret, attended by women only, on three days of the year… The reputation of these festivals as orgies led in 186 BC to a decree of the Roman Senate that prohibited the Bacchanalia throughout Italy, except in certain special cases. Nevertheless, Bacchanalia long continued in the south of Italy." (Bacchanalia, Britannica.com)

It has also continued to this day in places such as Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where the celebration exemplifies the lewd behaviour found in the early festivities. For the attendants, it is an opportunity for freedom – drinking, partying and forgetting all responsibility.

"And the environment is also an exaggeratedly sexual one. Parading down the Marquês de Sapucaí naked or very nearly so is common practice, and it has always been this way. The ‘sexier' you look, the better… Every year the main broadcasting network in Brazil hosts a popular election to choose the Globeleza… The chosen woman is shown dancing naked during advert breaks until the end of Carnival." (Hyper Sexual Carnival Atmosphere Has a Dark Side For Rio's Women, Independent.co.uk)

Carnival is no doubt a popular period in many Catholic countries, and while it is often justified as the celebration of culture, it is obvious that the nature of the event is similar to the early pagan customs inherited by the Roman Catholic church. It is a time to let loose, to throw off all restraint and indulge in temporary carnal pleasure, before fasting – a period of humility. There are many other religious celebrations held annually around the world and in various cultures, where revelry and excess precede a gesture of humility or self-restraint. Who are we trying to please? Which god would approve of such lewd celebrations before appearing to them in humility? This seems quite hypocritical to say the least. Should our culture represent selfish desire or, rather, should it represent an outgoing concern by putting the needs of others above our own wants and desire?

It is easy to seek pleasure, self-gratification and celebrate Carnival, Mardi Gras or Bacchanal but instead our focus as a society should be to show outward concern for others, rather than self-centered hedonism. The end result of self-indulgent festivities is misery, while the benefits of living "the give way" is true happiness.

Watch Where Did Carnival Come From? on YouTube at Tomorrow's World Viewpoint