Carnivals in Europe: Customs and traditions

During the week before Lent Roman Catholic countries traditionally hold lively carnivals of processions, music, dancing, and the use of masquerade. The parade is usually a riotous and colourful mixture of allegoric floats and street performers that can equally resemble a travelling fun fair or circus. Throughout history, tradition prevails to appoint a King or Queen of Carnival whose eminent role and purpose has varied over time.
Dating back to 1723, the mother of all carnivals is held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the largest country in South America. Famous for its rhythmic samba music and dance, it has grown into an extravaganza of daring costumes and of acting out collective fantasies. In North East Italy, the Carnival of Venice is renowned for its theatrical costumed masquerade and unique style of masks, the latter of which are sold all year round.
Carnival and street festivals are also held throughout the year in many cities when thousands of people from all walks of life and backgrounds participate in lively colourful parades while dancing and singing to band and other music in celebration of life.
Customs and traditions
The Italian word ‘carnevale’ has its roots in pagan festivals and traditions and is linked to Shrove Tuesday. As often the case with traditional festivals, it was adapted to fit into the Catholic rituals. In French, Mardi Gras means literally ‘Fat Tuesday’ alluding to the last day of feasting before the fast of Lent. The annual festival is held in some countries on Shrove Tuesday, most famously in New Orleans.
The Christian period of fasting and penance before Easter, traditionally forty days beginning on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, have been generally relaxed in both Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches.
The Easter celebration is the culmination of Holy Week and of the services connected with the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. Dating from apostolic times, each day of Holy Week has its own rite deriving from the events of the Passion as re-enacted in Jerusalem on the actual sites. It has been the custom to cover crucifixes, sculpture and paintings in Catholic churches during Holy Week and the week preceding it.
Carnivals in Europe Founded in 1980, and renamed in 2004, the Federation of European Carnival Cities (FECC) is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of people’s festivals and parades. With headquarters in Amsterdam, over 500 members and organisations representing 100 cities in 52 countries support the work of the Federation and its growing member network. The FECC lists nine varieties of prominent European Carnival Types. The description of its logo: from a little flower into a star and finally into a smiling star: symbolizing happiness, peace, success, to assume the air of a film star or Carnival Royalty.
Ita Marguet, March 2008
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this text.