Carnival 2019: Dates, The History Behind It And How Italians Celebrate This Sweet Festivity

The most colourful, lively Italian festivity is almost upon us: Carnevale!

Celebrations for Carnevale involve incredible parades and, even though not as much chocolate is consumed for this festivity -that is left to Easter and its chocolate eggs, just a few weeks later- like any good Italian tradition, it features some of the most delicious sweet treats.

What is the history behind Carnevale?

According to many interpretation the word “Carnevale” comes from the Latin carnem levare (“to eliminate the meat”): it indicated the plentiful feast which took place on the last day of the festivities (Shrove Tuesday), right before the period of fast for Lent. It is also possible that the word could come from another Latin phrase, carnaulia (“country games”) or even carrus navalis (“ship on wheels”), referring to the carriages and wagons which parade during the celebrations.

When is Carnival 2019?

Carnevale is a “moving” festivity: its date changes year to year. The major celebrations happen on Fat Thursday and Shrove Tuesday, respectively Giovedì Grasso and Martedì Grasso in Italian: the last Thursday and Tuesday before the beginning of Lent. (According to religious tradition, Lent starts on Ash Wednesday). In 2019, Carnevale will happen between February 28th (Fat Thursday 2019) and March 5th (Shrove Tuesday 2019 or Pancake Day). In Italy, however, we start eating typical Carnival sweets much earlier than that…

What is the history of Carnival?

The characteristics of Carnevale have very ancient origins, such as the Greek Dionysia and the Roman Saturnalia. During these festivities, people were allowed to disregard social and moral constraints and dedicate themselves to jokes, dissolution and the overturning of rules. Symbolically, Carnevale represented a period of renovation, during which chaos replaced order; after the festivities, order would emerge anew and be granted for the duration of a new life cycle, until the following Carnevale (more or less a solar year). Masks and disguises Groups were also typical of the ancient Roman traditions: chariots and wagons paraded carrying masqueraded figures and icons, meant to restore the cosmos after the chaos. Similar traditions were found in ancient Babylon, Indo-european peoples, Mesopotamia and other civilisations. All of them had a connotation of purification, regeneration and rebirth, when the spirits of the dead or other supernatural creatures could come to fraternise and celebrate with the living.  

These supernatural forces however came to happily fraternise with the living: many cultures, such as Germanic peoples and Japan, employ during Carnevale masks which are meant to represent the spirits of ancestors. It is also the signs that barriers between worlds have been broken, and that order is to be reconstituted through a process of purification which includes a “funeral”: this is why many traditions of Carnevale, in Italy but in the UK too, see the burning or destroying of a puppet, sometimes called “Re Carnevale”, King of Carnevale.

How is Carnival celebrated in Italy? Between the past and today

During the fifteenth and sixteenth century in Florence, the Medici family organised great masquerades  which would parade through the city on chariots called “triumphs”, accompanied by chants and dances. In Rome, horse racing and other games and competitions took place: even in the siege of Papal power, the ancient tradition of Carnevale retained its popularity after the arrival of Christianity.

Every part of Italy celebrates Carnevale with the most famous arguably being the Venice Carnevale. Another celebration of note is the Viareggio Carnevale. Originated in 1873, it is one of the most important and appreciated carnevale at an international level and considered, together with Venice’s, one of the ten best in the world. It is characteristic because of the largeness of its chariots, on which parade huge papier-mache puppets representing famous personalities of the field of politics, entertainment and culture, rendered with irony and satire. In fact, the first papier-mache chariot was born in Viareggio, in 1925. Just imagine, Viareggio’s chariots are so grand, they measure over 20 metres in height and are made by more than 25 firms and more than 1000 artisans. The Carnevale of Acireale and Ivrea are also notable.

Sartiglia: a unique example of Carnival

Finally, a very peculiar Carnevale is Sartiglia, in the island of Sardinia. It’s a horse racing event taking place in the city of Oristano, where Sartiglia and Carnevale are almost synonyms. The origins of this joust sink deep within the tradition of military chivalrous tournaments; today, it consists of the riders trying to hit the centre of a star-shaped target hanging from a green ribbon, defying fate. It is one of the most ancient equestrian events in the Mediterranean, and one of the most spectacular and choreographic Carnevale.

Celebrate with Lavolio!

I hope you have a chance to travel to Italy to witness Carnevale in person and try the typical Italian sweets and famous pastries of this festivity. But you can have a little piece of the vivid colours and flavours of Italy right here in London, Fulham: experiencing a gift box of my Italian chocolate confectionery. Its delicious flavours, mixture of textures and colourful variety will make you want to celebrate just like Italians would.

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