This week, 9 of my acquaintances are on holiday or have taken days off from work to participate in carnival activities. One of them lives in Binche, Belgium, where every year during the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday (i.e. today) there are street performances, dancing and merry making. The Shrove Tuesday’s parade includes the throwing or giving away of oranges to spectators by the Gilles – famous participants colourfully dressed with wax masks, ostrich-feathered hats and wooden footwear. The oranges are considered to bring good luck because they are a gift from the Gilles and it is an insult to throw or give them back. (Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras, Pancake Day or ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French as it’s the last night of eating rich and fatty food before fasting during Lent, which is 40 days before Easter).
According to http://www.carnivalpower.com/history_of_carnival.htm, the Catholics in Italy started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival, carnevale — which means “to put away the meat.” As time passed by, carnivals in Italy became quite famous; and the practice spread to France, Spain and all Catholic countries in Europe.
Two years ago, I was at the Notting Hill carnival in London and it had a fully Caribbean flare with lots of feathers, and I have since found out that in Africa feathers are used in masks and headdresses as a symbol of humans’ ability to overcome problems, pains, illness and difficulties. I’m certain you’ve heard a lot about the spectacular carnival bonanza in Brazil and Trinidad & Tobago, and the lavish Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, Sydney, Venice and other cities.
During my early days in Luxembourg when I read everything from billboard notices to free newspapers, I remember seeing something like “You haven’t lived in Luxembourg properly or fully until you’ve sampled the country’s magnificent array of carnival processions and parties.” Indeed, in Luxembourg, carnival is a serious and month-long celebration with various Luxembourgish associations organising a host of festive events and cavalcades (tradition that goes back to 1870); and February 27 was a no-work day in some companies.
During the carnival period, people enjoy tasty doughnuts, pancakes and other local specialities, such as knots of pastry sprinkled with icing sugar (Verwurrelt Gedanken) and small cakes made of scalded pastry (Stretzegebäck).
I did make some pancakes last weekend. As well, I was in a fancy-dress party organised beautifully by a lovely Polish-French couple, which included games, dancing that lasted till dawn and devouring on bigos (made of cabbage) and faworki ‘Angel wings’ (a yolk-base dough well aerated, kneaded then fried in deep oil, which are traditionally eaten on the last Thursday of the carnival).
Often, we hear about disorders and drunkenness that result from carnival festivities. Generally, however, there are more ups than downs: they liven up arts and cultures, vitalise local economy, provide employment and attract tourists. They encourage community spirit (e.g. one of my students serves as a volunteer First Aid personnel in his German-speaking hometown in Belgium); social integration; self-esteem; optimism and happiness. They also provide opportunities for authorities to showcase their organisational skills in terms of security, safety, transport, etc.
If you want to go beyond the carnival atmosphere, check the following local and world events in March: concerts and shows in your towns and cities, Water-Drawing Festival in Japan, Festival of Colour in India and Nepal, Bali Spirit Festival in Indonesia and Semana Santa in Mexico.