Today Carnival is a vastly popular holiday, celebrated in many countries all around the world. It is a huge festival with parades, balls and feasts which occur just before the beginning of Lent - a period of 40 days, leading up to Easter, in which devote Christians fast in order to commemorate Jesus Christ’s journey in the Judean Desert. However, like most Christian holidays, it roots can be traced back to much earlier times. Long before Christianity even existed, at the end of winter many pagan societies were faced with the same peculiar problem. Food was becoming scarce, stockpiles were running low and the coming rise in temperature meant that soon what little was left would begin to spoil. In order to not waste anything and make it through until the next harvest, they held a big feast. This celebration often coincided with the spring equinox and were meant to appease the gods to bring the end of winter. In Ancient Greece it was called Dionysia in honor of the God of wine, Dionysus, in Egypt they celebrated Osiris and in Babylon the Goddess Ishtar. The Romans had a similar holiday at the end of December, known as Saturnalia, during which they would dress up and take to the streets in honor of the winter solstice and the God Saturn. After the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, the church decided that instead of forcing people to abandon their traditions and celebrations, it would be easier to simply give them a Christian meaning. The midwinter celebrations became Christmas, the ones in spring turned to Easter. The Vatican then created Lent, denying meat, which was already scarce, for 40 days and to eliminate temptation Carnival was celebrated right before its start. Hence also its name, which is believed to come from the Latin words “carne levare”, meaning “leaving meat”. Another interpretation could be the phrase “carne vale”, which translates to “farewell to meat”, but the rough meaning is the same.
During the Middle Ages the carnival celebrations grew, sometimes lasting for much more then a mere couple of days. As the festival grew in length, so too grew the traditions involved with it. In medieval Spain and Italy people started dressing up and taking to the streets, which eventually evolved into the carnival parades and masquerade balls which we are familiar with today. The biggest of these was probably the Carnival of Venice, which became famous for its intricate masks. They became such an integral part of Venetian society, that the mascherari, the maskmakers, had their own guild with its own set of rules. Made of leather, porcelain and glass and covered in white paint, gold and gems, they were seen as a status symbol of the rich and powerful.
With the discovery of the New World, Carnival was also spread to the Americas. There the natives had their own celebrations, involving much singing and dancing and were easily incorporated into the Western traditions. Because of the slave trade, many Africans also made their way across the ocean and left their unique mark on the festival. In fact, the use of bright colors in the costumes and the incorporation of feathers came from their belief that they brought spiritual strength. Today the biggest Carnival in the world is held annually in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil with an estimated 2 million participants on each day of the festival.