carnival, communal celebration, especially the religious celebration in Catholic countries that takes place just before Lent. Since early times carnivals have been accompanied by parades, masquerades, pageants, and other forms of revelry that had their origins in pre-Christian pagan rites, particularly fertility rites that were connected with the coming of spring and the rebirth of vegetation. One of the first recorded instances of an annual spring festival is the festival of Osiris in Egypt; it commemorated the renewal of life brought about by the yearly flooding of the Nile. In Athens, during the 6th cent. B.C., a yearly celebration in honor of the god Dionysus was the first recorded instance of the use of a float. It was during the Roman Empire that carnivals reached an unparalleled peak of civil disorder and licentiousness. The major Roman carnivals were the Bacchanalia, the Saturnalia, and the Lupercalia. In Europe the tradition of spring fertility celebrations persisted well into Christian times, where carnivals reached their peak during the 14th and 15th cent. Because carnivals are deeply rooted in pagan superstitions and the folklore of Europe, the Roman Catholic Church was unable to stamp them out and finally accepted many of them as part of church activity. The immediate consequence of church influence may be seen in the medieval Feast of Fools, which included a mock Mass and a blasphemous impersonation of church officials. Eventually, however, the power of the church made itself felt, and the carnival was stripped of its most offending elements. The church succeeded in dominating the activities of the carnivals, and eventually they became directly related to the coming of Lent. The major celebrations are generally on Shrove Tuesday (see Mardi Gras); however, in Germany the carnival season, or Fasching, begins on the Epiphany (Jan. 6) in Bavaria and on Nov. 11 in the Rhineland. In recent times, the term carnival has also been loosely applied to include local festivals, traveling circuses, bazaars, and other celebrations of a joyous nature, regardless of their purpose or their season.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.