Mardi Gras and Carnival

Mardi Gras and Carnival, italian culture, italian heritage, italian american, italian news, italian traditions

Depiction of the Navigium Isidis festival, illustrated by Frederick Arthur Bridgman


As we approach the Lenten season, many who follow the precepts of the church prepare themselves for forty days of fasting.  The pre-Lenten season brings two words to mind: Mardi Gras and Carnival.  Both terms relate to the festivities leading up to the beginning of Lent.  
Such precepts entail various spiritual duties such as fasting and abstinences and additional devotions for a period of forty days, all in hopes of acquiring a better afterlife.  So every year, before entering the temporary world of piety known as the Lenten season, many indulge in the festive season ending on the day before Ash Wednesday, known to many as Mardi-Gras or Carnival.   
If you have heard the term “Fat Tuesday,” you may find it interesting to know that this expression is derived from the French words Mardi meaning “Tuesday” and Gras meaning “fat,” hence, Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.  
As a celebration, Mardi Gras has become quite popular in the French quarter of New Orleans, known as the “Big Easy,” and over the years has become world renown.  Mardi Gras is associated with wild-party celebrations of drinking and the eating of rich, fatty foods while speeding head-long into the brick wall known as Ash Wednesday, the first of forty days of fasting.  The term Mardi Gras goes hand in hand with the term “Carnival.”  Although the activities are basically the same, both concepts leading up to the beginning of Lent, the terms have different meanings. 
While Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday, Carnival means the absence of meat or the removal of meat during the Lenten season, a kind of heads-up to let you know that your meat-eating days are soon coming to an end.  Both terms involve public merry-making, parades and street parties in a kind of circus-like atmosphere complete with music, costumes and masks.  
However there are other points of view regarding the meaning of the term Carnival:  Perhaps the term is derived, not from Christianity, but from Paganism.  As the saying goes, “The devil is in the details,” though the answer may lie with our Roman ancestors.
Enter the Ancient Romans: There existed centuries ago, a celebration known as Navigium Isidis or Isidis Navigium, which translates to the vessel of Isis. Isidis Navigium was an annual ancient Roman religious festival honoring the goddess Isis, held on the 5th of March. 
Temples had been built for Isis, outside the city at first, then inside Rome.  Later many Temples to Isis were built throughout the Roman Empire stretching from Greece to Londinium, an established Roman settlement in the current site of present day London.  
Worshipers carried the vessel of Isis in procession to the water’s edge where the vessel, with inscriptions of prayers on its sails, was consecrated by a chief priest and set out to sea by a breeze for the success of the years’ navigation.   
According to some scholars, the modern carnival seems to resemble the festival of the Navigium Isidis, some arguing that they share the same origin as via carrus navalis.
The term carrus navalis may have fallen victim to, what is known as, folk etymology, which means the changing of a word or phrase over a period of time resulting from the replacement of an unfamiliar form by a more familiar one.  Therefore, carrus navalis, meaning float wagon is believed to have been turned into car-nival.  The idea of decorated floats may very well have come from this ancient practice.  
Today, floats may have become the most interesting aspects of Mardi Gras and Carnival parades.  Why are they called floats? They certainly don’t float. They’re on wheels and are moved from the start of the parade to the end and yet we refer to them as “floats.”  So we may never know if the term Carnival is derived from Paganism or Christianity.    The Christian religion had been doing business in Rome for about fifty years (circa 325 AD) when a new emperor mounted the throne.  He was not a patient man.  Although Pagan religion was strong with the Romans, it would soon meet its demise. 
The Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great, who reigned between 379 and 395, did away with much of Roman paganism by banning temple visits, abolishing pagan holidays, extinguishing the eternal flame of the temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum, disbanding the Vestal Virgins, punishing the practice of witchcraft, as well as refusing the Senators’ plea to restore the Altar of Victory.  
As far as the origin of the term Carnival is concerned, it’s anybody’s call.  Carnival is what you make it.  So, enjoy your Mardi Gras or Carnival as you approach Ash Wednesday. 
By the way, this year, 2014, we can look forward to Ash Wednesday falling on March 5th and Easter Sunday falling on April 20, which is quite different from last year’s dates.  This may prompt some people to wonder why Ash Wednesdays and Easter Sundays are so different from one year to another.  
Well, I’ll tell, you ... next time.

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