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Galveston, Texas, has its own version of Carnevale

Carnevale Offers an Opportunity for Common People to Eat Well

On March 5th, thousands of St. Louisans wearing purple, green and gold will gather for a day of pre-Lenten revelry. In a relatively short period of time, the celebration has grown to become the city’s biggest party of the year. In the United States, the most common description for this type of party is Mardi Gras. The name has been adopted based on the nation’s most famous winter festival, but whether it is called Carnevale, Carnival or Mardi Gras, each celebration has its roots in Italy. Here is why…

Traditionally, the Carnevale feast was the last opportunity for common people to eat well, since typically, at the end of winter, a food shortage was imminent. People were limited to the minimum necessary meals during this period. All of the remaining winter stores of lard, butter and meat would be eaten. The feast was a way to ensure that everyone was fed enough to survive until the coming spring would provide new food sources. Carnevale in the Middle Ages took almost the entire period between Christmas and the beginning of Lent. The concept of a lengthy party during the cold winter has even more ancient origins. While winter spirits reigned during the coldest months of the year, they needed to be driven out in order for the summer to return. Carnevale can thus be regarded as a rite of passage from darkness to light, from winter to summer; a fertility celebration, the first spring festival of the new year, exemplified in the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia.

It was Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) who combined the ancient pagan rites with Christian beliefs by deciding that fasting would start on Ash Wednesday. The whole Carnevale event was set before the fasting to put a clear division between celebrations and penitence.

Still, the whole carnival atmosphere was a quandary for the Catholic Church. Some of the customs that developed, such as mocking the ruling class while wearing masks and disguises, were hitting a little too close to the vest (or vestment in this case). In 1590, Pope Pius V imposed harsh punishments on offenders during in Rome and he went so far as to erect whipping posts in conspicuous places as a caution and warning.

In the United States, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could not answer correctly the question as to where the biggest Carnevale takes place. Although Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is associated with the French Quarter of New Orleans, it is still a tradition that dates back thousands of years to the Roman celebrations of spring and fertility.

There are a number of other Carnevale celebrations in the United States. Some have long-standing traditions, while others are of more recent vintage. One of the oldest is the Carnival of Mobile, Alabama. It was founded in 1703 and has more than one million attendees spread over a month of parades and dress balls. One of its curiosities is the traditional of launching Moon Pies from floats during parades.

Galveston, Texas, claims to have the largest Carnevale with an ocean view, although it is small potatoes compared to Rio de Janeiro. Its origin dates back to 1867, with celebrations that included a masked ball, which still plays a featured role, as do concerts and parades.

Lafayette, Louisiana, has perhaps the most family-friendly celebration, which dates back to the turn of the 20th century. At least 100,000 per day attend the family-oriented event, where smiling children can enjoy the festivities during two weeks of parades and private balls.

Perhaps the most recent is in San Diego, California. In 1994, restaurateurs in the city were hoping to drum up business during the slow season and they threw an impromptu three-float parade (and were ticketed by police). Today, the city’s carnival has five stages with concerts and other live performers in the city’s Gaslamp Quarter, including showgirls on stilts.

So back to St. Louis, where in 1979, five friends threw a party to defeat the dreary days of winter. They likely had little idea that their party would become the biggest in the city, with more than a half million people attending, nor that they were likely aware that they were reigniting a custom that had its origins in pagan rituals that stretched back to the days of ancient Rome. So no matter what you call it, a party to conquer the winter blues is anything but new…yet it is certainly Italian!