You might have been celebrating this occasion during the last week or so. It’s not celebrated much in English-speaking countries, except for Notting Hill and New Orleans, but in much of Continental Europe and South America, it’s quite a big deal. The celebrations occur before the Christian period of Lent: 40 days of abstinence and/or fasting before Easter. Carnival is a catharsis, one last big blowout before the austerity of Lent. While we do use the word carnival in English in a general sense to refer to a travelling circus or funfair, the word has its origins in the religious context. It seems to come from the Latin phrase carne vale, meaning farewell to meat, with people indulging themselves in as much meat as possible before giving it up for Lent. The phrase can also be translated as farewell to flesh, leading some to take that as a cue to get physical. And if they were planning on giving that up for Lent, why not? They could also point the word carnal as having a similar etymology to justify themselves.

But as I said, Carnival isn’t celebrated so much in the English-speaking world. It’s probably hard to get excited when the last day before Lent is known as Shrove Tuesday. Shrove comes from the word shrive, meaning to hear a confession or deliver penance. Shrive in turn from the Proto-Germanic skriban, meaning to decree or write (also the origin of words like script and scribe. Which kind of makes sense: putting something in writing makes it seem more solid, more real. Mardi Gras, now that sounds much more fun, largely because it’s French, but it probably doesn’t sound so attractive when you consider that it means Fat Tuesday.

As for the word Lent, it comes from the West Germanic langitinaz, meaning long days or lengthening of days, which makes sense as it occurs in spring, but it’s probably not what you want to focus on when you’re fasting. And perhaps you are fasting, as it’s now Lent, and many Christians worldwide still give something up. Give up meaning relinquish, pass something on to someone else. Interestingly, give up is basically a direct translation of surrender, coming from the French sur (on, above) and rendre (give). Which is what you’re doing when you give something up, surrendering it, perhaps temporarily.

So if you are giving anything up for Lent, hopefully you got it all out of your system at Carnival!

10 thoughts on “Carnival

  1. I dunno. “Fat Tuesday” sounds alright to me. Fat Tuesday; Huge Tuesday; a BIG day! Something i’d mark on my calendar, for sure!
    “Carnival ” is a great word. Conjures up all sorts of excitement. I have this amazing book -which i found at an op-shop- entitled with that very word , and contains information on the origins of such celebrations, along with amazing photographs of various manifestations of the “carnival” all over the globe. It’s by Alexander Orloff. Very interesting book.
    Fascinating to read of the origins of the word, anyway. “Carne Vale”…sounds like a vegetarian celebration 😉 (As a herbivore, perhaps i *should* mark some day on the calendar for such a thing…it’d probably only be an excuse to drink, however..)
    Did you ever watch that series, ‘Carnivàle’ ? Bloody dark and disturbing, but excellent.
    The very word “carnival” seems ( to me, at least) to embody both the colour & celebration side of things and a darkness and mystery all at once.

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    • I always meant to watch ‘Carnivàle,’ but never got round to it before it got cancelled, and then I didn’t have the heart to, knowing I’d never see a satisfying resolution. It definitely seemed to really explore the dark side of carnival though. You’re right, there’s always a sense of mystery or transgression involved: like Hallowe’en.

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      • ‘Carnivàle’ actually ended on a rather disappointing note…or so i felt, anyway. ( I won’t spoil it in case you do get around to watching it at some stage 😉 ). But yes, VERY dark. It was aesthetically beautiful; amazing sets and scenery; well filmed, etc. But super dark. There are some pretty disturbing scenes that i don’t think i’d like to rewatch. I’d really have to be in the right mood to watch it these days. But still, a fascinating show nevertheless!

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  2. I had sausage for “Fat Tuesday” not pancakes but I am not of the persuasion to give up anything, so it was just an excuse to eat even more and eat far more unhealthy. Interesting carnival means “farewell to meat” . I know a few Catholics who give up meat but I didn’t know there was a direct correlation between the celebration name and the actual subsequent actions. One of the reasons I love you blog Niall, is that I actually learn a thing or two. That is if it sticks to my little Teflon coated pea brain. THANX. ~~dru~~

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    • I’m always glad to supply morsel of interesting information! I don’t know many adults who give anything up anymore, and most people would struggle to give up meat for so long, though here in Ireland a lot of children still give up sweets. I remember how satisfying it was to finally blow out on Easter Sunday! I remember one year buying sweets throughout Lent and eating them all with my eggs on Easter Sunday and Monday. Well worth the abstinence!

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