The Origin and History of Carnival – The World’s Oldest Party!

Here is everything you need to know about the history and origins of the world’s oldest party!

What is carnival?

origin history carnival

Carnival or carnaval is an annual festival that typically occurs before the onset of Lent and generally involves a public celebration of some kind. These public celebrations typically include street parties, parades, balls or some other form of entertainment.

What is the History of Carnival?

origin history carnival

Well that is a question that doesn’t exactly have an answer. The exact origins of carnival are a debatable affair. Today carnival is principally a Christian affair celebrated mainly in countries with large Catholic populations.

However, carnival started long before the emergence of Christianity and was a celebration that was highlighted on many pagan religious calendars. It has been speculated that carnival originated some 5000 years ago with the Egyptians other speculate it was the Greeks. In ancient Egypt and Greece there were festivities that occurred around the cycles of nature and the universe.

In Ancient times long before the emergence of Christianity, people whom we call pagans today had wild celebrations centred around the winter and spring solstices, and spring and fall equinoxes. These wild celebrations were the ones that people were reluctant to give up, even after they became Christians.

#Carnival is speculated to have originated back in Egypt. ? The ancient people would throw celebrations around the spring equinox! Click To Tweet

Spring Equinox Celebrations

origin history carnival

You might also be interested: Rio de Janeiro Carnival 2020

Many pagans held large celebrations that revolved around the spring equinox. Celebrations were always held around the end of winter to celebrate the coming of spring and the renewal of fertility. Carnival was essentially seen as a spiritual passage from dark to light, winter to summer.

In Europe the Pagans believed that evil spirits ruled the world during winter, and that they had to be driven out for summer to return. Many Pagans also held celebrations at the end of successful harvests heading into winter and were a way of thanking the spirits.

End of Winter Feasting

origin history carnival

Carnival feasting usually occurred before the onset of spring because it was the last chance common people had to eat well because there was usually a scarcity of food towards the end of winter.

Livestock was usually slaughtered in November, and towards the end of winter all the left-over winter stock of lard, butter and meat would have to be eaten before they started to decay with the onset of warmer temperatures.

This feast insured that everyone was fed enough to last until springtime and until a new harvest could provide new food sources. Nerthus the fertility goddess was at the centre of these celebrations, driving out winter and making sure that fertility would return in the spring.

Dionysia, Ancient Greece and Saturnaalia & Brumalia in Roman Empire

origin history carnival

In ancient Greece, Dionysia was a large spring festival that was held to honour Dionysus who was the god of wine. The Romans adopted this tradition and honoured Saturnalia who was their God of wine. These festivals were all about feasting and drunken revelry.

The Roman Empire adopted the most popular pagan festivals and the practices. With the growth of the Roman Empire these festivities spread throughout the empire under newly created names. For example, the December celebration of the winter solstice became known as the Saturnalia and Brumalia festivals.

The pre-spring festivals turned into the spring festival of Ishtar in Babylon, or Osiris in Egypt signalling new birth. Another festival was celebrated in the middle of these two known as the “love-fest” of Lupercalia.

The Catholic Church Christianises pagan celebrations

origin history carnival

After the Roman Empire adopted Christianity and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church spread across the world, it frequently discovered that wherever the church went, the native people did not want to give their celebrations and traditions.

So instead of using force the church simply gave the pagan festivals Christian meanings. Saturnalia and Brumalia was converted into Christmas and merged with the church’s teachings about the birth of Jesus.

The spring festivals were converted to Easter and the story of the goddess Ishtar merged with the Roman church’s interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lupercalia turned into St. Valentine’s Day, which fell between Christmas and Easter.

Carnival before Lent

origin history carnival

The Vatican then created Lent in the lead up to Easter by imposing its own interpretation of Christ’s 40 day fast by denying meat and earthly pleasures for the 40 days before Easter. They moved the Pagan feasting celebrations to before Lent. 

Carnival on the Christian calendar involved the whole community and was a giant celebration in which rich food and drink were consumed, as well a time to indulge sexual desires all of which were supposed to be suppressed during the following period of fasting.

During Lent, no parties or celebrations were held, and people refrained from eating meat, dairy, fat, and sugar. Most of these foods were unavailable anyway during this period because of winter shortages.

Lent’s purpose was to commemorate Jesus but also a time to reflect on Christian values. For those converting to Christianity it was a time to prepare for baptism at Easter. 

Where did the word “carnival” come from?

origin history carnival

This is how the word carnival came about from the Latin words carnis (meat) and levare (“to leave off”), because straight after the carnival came Lent – 40 days of sacrifice. Carnivals ended on Shrove Tuesday (also known as Mardi Gras in Latin, or Fat Tuesday in some countries) the day before Lent officially begins, which is known as Ash Wednesday.

Carnival in the Middle Ages

origin history carnival

In the Middle Ages carnival wasn’t just a few days but went for almost the entire period between Christmas and beginning of Lent. It was viewed as an outlet for the people to be free from their daily worries.

In 743AD the synod of Leptines located near Binche in Belgium wrote about the excesses seen in the month of February. Books from around 800 contain much information about how people would cross dress, or dress up as animals, and how doing this was a sin.

In Spain, San Isidoro de Sevilla complained in his writings in the seventh century about people cross dressing and heading into the streets disguised in many cases as the opposite gender or as animals even though doing so was a sin.

Carnival continued to evolve and became a manifestation of European folk culture. Some of the best-known carnival traditions, including carnival parades and masquerade balls, were first recorded in medieval Italy.

The Carnival of Venice was the most famous carnival celebration and was interestingly abolished by Napoleon in 1797 and was only restored relatively recently in 1979. Carnival traditions spread across the world with the conquistadors and colonist, with France spreading it to New France in North America and Spain and Portugal spreading it to the Americas.

Carnival in the Americas

origin history carnival

Carnival didn’t just spread across Europe, but it also came to the Americas, carried there by the European conquistadors and colonists. The Europeans also discovered that the Natives also had their own pagan community celebrations full of song and dance.

A lot of these celebration were also about worshipping their gods and the earth to ensure a good harvest for the following year. Again, the catholic church instead of forcing the natives to give up their celebrations just let them celebrate them with Christian meanings. Many celebrations still occur today.

African influences on carnival traditions

origin history carnival

It was the Africans who contributed the most to many modern carnival traditions. Africans were brought to the Americas, originally as free men and then later as slaves. Many African traditions were fused with the European celebrations.

They contributed the bright colours that you see in many carnival costumes as well as the lively sounds and music that are key features of carnival in the Americas.  Feathers and other natural objects were used to create costumes and masks because of beliefs that they brought spiritual strengths to the wearer. Therefore, today many costumes still feature feathers.

One African tradition was people parading around the village, circling it wearing masks and brilliantly coloured costumes, whilst singing and dancing to bring luck to the village. For the village to have luck it meant scaring away the spirits of angry dead relatives, which is why many carnival parades feature symbols of death.

Other traditions include stilt-walking, carrying puppets and fighting mock battles with sticks. But most importantly it was the Africans who brought lively musical instruments, dance rhythms and singing styles.

The Church encouraged celebrations in the Americas so long as they had a religious façade, because it was a way to release the slaves’ and a way for poor people’s pent up pressures in a non-threatening way. The first modern Carnival parade took place in Cologne in 1823 and other cities began to develop their own traditions and customers divorcing from their religious origins.

Carnival Today

origin history carnival

Today Carnival is truly a global phenomenon that is celebrated over 50 countries. Carnival has evolved beyond pre-Lenten celebrations and every country and city has their own unique spin on carnival traditions and celebrations.

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