Carnival is a season of festivity in the Western culture.  It takes place just prior to Lent which is a religious occasion in liturgical calendar. They generally take place in the month of February or in the beginning of March.

Historically this period is called Shrovetide or Pre-lent. Carnivals are public gatherings which include parades, masquerades and street fairs. It’s generally a colorful and exotic affair.

During this time people are in a mood to have fun. They often dress up in various types of costumes and wear masks to leave behind their day to day identity and just celebrate. People are seen to consume excessive meat, alcohol and other foods during the period of carnival. It also includes mocking of government authorities, food fights and other such mock battles. 

The word Carnival is typically used in the areas having a large number of Catholic people. However in Philippines, after the putting an official end to Manila Carnival in the year of 1931, Carnival is no longer celebrated. This festivity is also called Fastelavn in Lutheran countries. Areas having higher concentration of Methodist and Anglicans, pre-Lenten celebrations are observed on the Shrove Tuesday.

In Netherlands and some parts of Europe, the season of carnival typically begins on 11/11 and even at 11:11 a.m. sometimes. The world’s largest carnival is considered to be the one held in Rio de Janeiro. Almost two million participants take part in this event every year.  It made a world record of having 400,000 visitors in the year 2004.

Etymology of Carnival

The word Carnival is also called Carnaval in Latin and used in places where French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Dutch are spoken. In Italian speaking regions it is also called Carnevale.  The word has originated from Italian words “Carne” which means meat or “Carrus” which means car. Some people however believe that the word comes from the Latin phrase carne vale which means farewell to flesh or meat. While others argue that it has originated from the Italian expression carne levare which means removing meat.  Some also say that Carnival has come from the festival name Navigium Isidis which is a Roman name. The reason behind such belief is many traditions of this festival are observed in today’s Carnivals.


Traditionally in carnivals reversal of social roles are observed and rules and regulations are suspended. Moreover the ways in which a person is expected to behave is also suspended and the norms he is expected to abide by are dissolved. Carnival thus follows reversal ritual. Just like warm summer drives away the hardships of winter, Carnival is also believed to be the transition from a period of darkness to sunshine. Carnival celebrates the summer over winter and it celebrates fertility. The carnival feast was traditionally the very last chance to eat before the end of winter during which the problem of food shortage would creep in. During this time all the remaining meat, butter, lard and other foods stored for winter would be consumed as they would soon decay and become inedible. All the stored foods would be eaten to ensure that all people are well fed so that they can survive till spring when food stock would be renewed again. For various tribes in Europe, carnival is the celebration of the return of the warm sunshine after a period of dark winter. During the celebration people would carry around the figure of the goddess of fertility, Nerthus, in a procession on a ship having wheels.  The procession typically had men dressed as women and disguised as animals. It is believed that the carnival has originated from the period before Lent when the whole community would consume alcohol and meat in large quantities and it would turn into a gala feast. Just like the Christian festivals are sanctioned by the church, the carnival was introduced and made popular by the folk culture.

Carnivals across the world

  • Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: This carnival takes place in the month of February approximately forty days before Easter. A crowd of around two million people come out on the street each day of the carnival to watch performances put forward by three hundred street bands and two hundred samba schools. It is a four day ceremony that takes place from Saturday to Tuesday.

  • Carnival in Notting Hill, London, United Kingdom: Takes place on the last Sunday and Monday in the month of August. Around 50,000 performers perform and a crowd of one million people turn up to watch it. Static music systems are installed along the route of parade and the food stalls sells delicious Caribbean foods.

  • Mardi gras, New Orleans, United States of America: It takes place on the day prior to Ash Wednesday. A huge crowd gathers to The Big Easy every year. The carnival starts on the 6th of January and takes up full speed on the midnight on the day just before Ash Wednesday.

  • Santa Cruz de Tenerife Carnaval, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Tenerife: It takes place on the week before the Ash Wednesday. Hundreds of bands and music groups perform during this. Main parade takes place on Tuesday that comes before the Ash Wednesday. The day prior to this is dedicated to feasting. Dance performances are also a part of this festivity.

  • Carnevale di Venezia, Venice, Italy:  It takes place two weeks before the arrival of Ash Wednesday. Thousands and thousands of people turn up for this twenty day event. The main attraction is the masquerade where people wear masks with exotic costumes.