Carnival time! Mardi Gras! What is the connection between carnival times, the first day of Lent and Easter? So many religions, cultures and traditions seem to have a lot in common, even though the beliefs and dates may differ.
In New Orleans, Louisiana the holiday of Mardi Gras lasts for about two weeks, before and through Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.
In Venice there is a huge Mardi Gras celebration at the start of Lent.
And of course one of the biggest carnival celebrations is held in Rio De Janeiro in Brazil, to begin Lent. Large processions of people singing and dancing, dressed in very bright and exotic clothes. Some of the costumes are held up by wire structures so that the people wearing them look very big and like butterflies or birds. The Rio carnivals started over 250 years ago, when the Portuguese settlers brought a different form of carnival called “entrudo”.
We see that the carnival has changed and morphed throughout the years, but its basic meaning and principal is the same. Carnival can be regarded as a spiritual journey… the rite of passage from darkness to light… from winter to summer.
Carnival time usually begins as we enter in to spring. The days grow longer, the ground and the trees turn green and the flowers start blooming.
This period was extremely magical for our ancestors and was celebrated by all of the different cultures and civilizations on earth.
The earth would be reborn again after winter and this was associated with life after death.
In Ancient Greece, in Athens, they celebrated the flower festival. It was an annual feast that was held in honor of the God Dionysus, the God of fertility and wine. The Ancient Greeks would break open the new wines of the year. A procession of people wearing masks of the God Dionysus would make noise, shout and play musical instruments.
The flower festival would last for 3 days. The third day was dedicated to the dead and they would pass out foods made of various flowers and grains. This is still a customary offering in Greece at funerals, until this day.
It should be noted that the words mask and masquerade come from Italian or Arabic, meaning “false outward show” in the figurative sense and originated in the time of Dionysus.
After Ancient Greece, these celebrations were taken on by the Romans. In Ancient Rome they were called “Saturnalia”. A carnival in honor of the deity Saturn where there were sacrifices made at the Temple of Saturn and a King of the carnival was selected. Many of these traditions still exist today.
With the rise of Christianity, the fathers of the church added these 3 weeks of carnival to make the transition of the old religion in to the new religion easier for all.
There are so many different traditions in the world. Instead of talking about all of them, I thought I would give you some information and insight about my traditions, which happen to be Greek traditions.
In Greece, the tradition for the Greek Orthodox is as follows:
The Triodion period, lasts 10 weeks. It starts on Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee and goes on until Holy Saturday, including the Great Lent and Holy Week.
The Lenten Triodion is the service book of the Orthodox Church that provides the texts for the divine services for the pre-Lenten weeks of preparation.
The weeks of preparation and especially the Sunday gospel readings, serve to exercise the mind, whereas the fasting of Great Lent focuses on the body and Holy Week’s services exercise the spirit.
The first 3 weeks of the Tridion (Lent) is the carnival or “Apokria” as it is called in Greek. The word literally means abstinence from meat. The latin word is “Carnevale” which means the same.
During the first week there is no fasting. All foods can be eaten freely even on Wednesday and Friday. This is also believed to be the week that the souls rise from the underworld.
During the second week there is fasting from meat on Wednesday and Friday. All foods can be eaten freely the rest of the week. The fifth day of the week, Thursday, is called “Tsiknopempti” and literally means the smoke rising from the grill on Thursday. On this day you can consume as much meat as you want! It is similar to “Fat Tuesday”.
During the third week, meat is no longer eaten, but you can consume milk and dairy products, eggs and fish.
The end of this week signifies the beginning of Lent. A fast which lasts for 7 weeks and is completed on Holy Saturday. During this time, some people do not consume meat, dairy products, fish or eggs. They follow a very strict fasting diet.
Fasting does not only cleanse the body from toxins, it is also meant to cleanse the soul. It is a way to help us rise, spiritually, bringing us closer to God.
Another tradition that is linked to this belief, is the flying of kites that takes place on Clean Monday. Kites were discovered in 1000 B.C. in China. The Chinese also believed in raising their human soul towards God. This is the significance of this tradition.
Clean Monday is similar to Ash Wednesday in the Roman Catholic religion; where a cross made of Ash is placed on people’s foreheads. It is a way of repenting.
Whatever your beliefs or traditions may be… enjoy this special time preparing for the biggest celebration of all.. Easter !