Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Carnival and Ashes

by Bernard Strasser


A short essay on the place that carnival has in the preparation for Lent, includes the history of this carnival period.

Larger Work

Orate Fratres: A Liturgical Review



Publisher & Date

Monks of Saint John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota, February 21, 1943

The prayers and gospels of the pre-lenten season, and more especially of Lent itself, attempt to awaken us to a profound realization of the fact that only through penance and through uncompromising rejection of sin, that is, through a thorough change of heart, can we partake of the redemption of Christ. Through His incarnation, His passion and death, Christ gained for us the graces of salvation without any merit on our part. But He respects the free will of the creature that He Himself has made: He will not force His graces upon us, nor will He press them upon us like alms upon an unwilling pauper.

He demands that we work seriously and tirelessly, and at every hour of the day of our life, in the vineyard that He Himself has planted (Septuagesima Sunday). Only a heart freed from sin and evil inclinations can become the field producing fruit fifty and a hundred-fold for the divine Sower (Sexagesima). Whoever refuses to toil at purifying his sin-laden and sin-warped heart will of necessity remain in fatal darkness, and the light of salvation and grace will not reach him. Even the Savior Himself, the divine Light-bearer, cannot cure the obdurate one of his blindness (Quinquagesima).

Such unhappy persons, who stubbornly neglect to labor at the one thing necessary, are branded by holy Scripture as "fools" (Luke 12:20). Our holy Mother Church too is constantly driving home the same lesson: If you are not rich as regards God, but are content to say to your soul: Take thy ease, eat, drink and be merry, you are a fool of fools. Most urgently does she remind us of this fact during Lent, on Ash Wednesday, and during the days that immediately precede.

These carnival days in particular contain a remarkable lesson of spirituality for us. According to their origin and the Church's intention they are anything but days of thoughtless conviviality, and certainly not of dissolute merrymaking. They are not a carryover from pagan times, of which the Church was unable to destroy the memory and observance. Rather are they an integral part of the Church year, with the significant task of illustrating graphically the first part of the Church's sermon text for this season: "You are fools, all of you who seek your final end in earthly things! I your Mother will during the coming weeks of Lent show you where true happiness may be found, Who it is that brought it, and how He merited it for us."

Proof that Shrovetide and the carnival days, despite their rollicking good fun and general merriment, really had a deadly serious objective, is furnished us by the medieval carnival.

It was an impressive moment, early on Shrove Monday morning at 8 o'clock, when the procession of "the princes of this world," in all their tinsely splendor, followed by a long train of personified human vices, sins and infirmities, solemnly entered the city gate and took possession of the town. All the actors wore highly conventionalized wooden masks, and curiously elaborate costumes, handed down from generation to generation, which did not even reveal the sex of the wearer. They were the characters and scenes from Everyman that passed through the streets that morning: Death, the Devil, Lady Earth, Vanity, Beauty, the Courtesan, Sin, Wisdom, the Rich Man, the Poor Man, the Beggar, the Drunkard, the various trades and professions, the different ages of man, the personified capital sins and vices, the joys and sorrows of human life, etc. How ridiculous now appeared the conceit of "the Self-Complacent," who with a fat and smug smile strode self-consciously along under his "regal canopy" in the form of a tiny umbrella. How tragicomic were "the Snivelers," the pessimists, with wooden tears on their masks so large that no handkerchief of whatever size could wipe them away. These also paraded under an umbrella-canopy, woebegone and lugubrious, voicing their eternal grief and weltschmerz, and lamenting their inability to paint life darkly enough.

Many other characters there were, bedecked with iron and copper bells and chains, sometimes more than thirty pounds in weight, swaying and shuffling about in ancient dance rhythms. What else did they mean to say except: "Look at us fools! Just look at us!" Then there were the capital sins, represented as wild men or centaurs, bestriding wooden hobby horses which seemed to dash madly this way and that, or which were led along on a rope by other wild-looking men who lashed them on with whips. Up in front were hundreds of children, the so-called "fools' offspring," who shrilled and sang and danced about crazily.

Several of the masked paraders carried huge books, in which appeared in large script certain standard, pointed witticisms, with illustrations to match, about various types of people: the quarrelsome wife, the lazy workman, the scapegrace husband, the meddlesome mother-in-law, the skinflint employer, etc. As they passed by some onlooker who was notoriously classifiable under one or the other of these headings, they would in a disguised voice call his attention to the respective picture and gleefully quote him the corresponding chapter and verse. And to allay any ruffled feelings, the victim was given a sweetmeat by his annoyer, much as the executioner of those same medieval times begged pardon of his victim for having to inflict hurt upon him.

Thus did the merriment of the passing hour imperfectly conceal a stern seriousness. The general hilarity, which in early times never degenerated into coarseness, was itself the means the Church took to warn her children not to be spiritual fools. Piercing through the noise and fun-making, and clearly heard by all, was the. warning voice: "Don't imagine it will help you much to attract attention to yourself with your smug boastfulness or your whining self pity. Men have always been anxious to sound the gong of their own little talents and abilities, or their knowledge however small. It is human weakness to play to the gallery, to feed on flattery and to think one's own tiny concerns of the utmost importance. But all that is 'vanity and vexation of mind' (Eccl. 2:11). Only one thing is necessary: Save your soul; give heed to what the Church will command you during the coming season of Lent."

Such is the meaning of the carnival days in the eyes of the Church. And because she is in no way an enemy of good fun or a kill-joy, she has never discouraged innocent merrymaking during these days that precede the strict season of penance. In earlier centuries, it was customary for those who had canonically observed the lenten season and fast to celebrate its termination with a festal meal of blessed foods on Easter day. (Compare our ritual blessings of food on Easter Sunday!) And certainly the Church did not hold it against them if on the last day before the long fast they indulged their appetite for meat with more than the usual relish and capacity. Hence the derivation of the word "carnival" ("carn' aval," from "avalare," "avaler," "to gulp down." More commonly, however, the word is derived from "carne vale," i.e., "goodbye, meat." For this is the day ubi caro valet, on which we bid farewell to flesh meat for the duration). This same Church calls out to us: Rejoice always, again I say rejoice. But, rejoice in the Lord (Phil. 4:4). She knew what she was about when she instituted the Gaudete and Laetare Sundays in the middle of Advent and Lent. "All things have their season: . . . there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance" (Eccl. 3:4). But Christian joy is not the same as having "a high time," nor are happiness and pleasure at all necessarily coextensive.

It is really quite instructive to note how in the course of time the meaning and purpose of the Christian carnivaltide became obscured, and later vitiated.

To the same extent that the observance of the lenten fast declined and "carne vale" was celebrated by those who had not the slightest intention of abstaining from meat, and neither understood nor cared about the religious-liturgical role of these days, the festivities of the carnival days became progressively more unbridled and licentious. The late middle ages already witnessed a growing coarseness of the carnival plays, especially of the judgment and wedding scenes. Hans Sachs (he of Meistersinger fame), who himself composed more than eighty such morality plays and was an expert at pricking human foibles, felt obliged to protest sharply against the gross vulgarity that was beginning to appear in plays of this type. At the time of the Reformation, these plays often became vehicles of religious propaganda in which the Church and her doctrine and practices were travestied. Ever since the sixteenth century Renaissance, moreover, with its love of display, the masquerades and allied entertainments became ever more elaborate. They gradually came to resemble more and more the ancient pagan feasts dedicated to Saturn and Bacchus (god of wine), with all their revelry, questionable dances, masquerades and debaucheries of various kinds. The time of celebration, too, was extended. Whereas formerly the festivities had begun, at the earliest, on the feast of St. Blase (Feb. 3), they now started already with the Epiphany feast.

The meaningful "carne vale," "farewell to flesh meat," now was metamorphosed into a jolly "Prince Carnival" (most likely an adaptation from the earlier procession of "the princes of this world"). And the former "Fools' Kermis," as Shrove Monday was called in honor of all the worldly-minded fools who would soon be brought to order by the lenten season, became a day of bedlam, on which ancient pagan practices of noise-making, drubbings with staves and pig-bladders (forerunners of our own toy balloons!), etc. were resurrected. (The ancient Germanic peoples at their spring festivals believed by these means to frighten and drive away the unfriendly spirits of winter.) At the close of these festivities, usually early on Ash Wednesday morning, carnivaltide, represented as an old witch, was then ceremoniously buried, drowned or burned.--Not much, evidently, was left of the original Christian conception of these days.

The Church soon took measures to counteract this perversion of the carnival days and especially the excesses committed. The new devotion of the forty hours before the exposed Blessed Sacrament was introduced in order to keep the faithful away from the objectionable celebrations and to atone for the sins occasioned by these days. This pious practice was sponsored in Italy in the sixteenth century by St. Charles Borromeo, St. Philip Neri, and Cardinal Paleotti. St. Ignatius Loyola and the Society were likewise instrumental in propagating it widely. Sermons, rogation processions and public prayers formed its usual program. Pope Benedict XIV granted a plenary indulgence for its observance in the papal states, which his successor, Clement XIII, then extended to the universal Church. In our own day, a service of reparation before the Blessed Sacrament, followed by Benediction, has become customary on the eve before Ash Wednesday.

It may be of interest to add that in England a relic of the old Catholic significance of carnivaltide has maintained itself to some extent through the centuries. On Tuesday before Ash Wednesday morning in many of the old parishes a church bell is rung. In London it has the picturesque name of "pancake-bell", for this day in every household is the traditional day for pancakes. In Catholic times, this ringing of the bell was a reminder to the people that today they must go to confession in preparation for Lent; hence the name Shrove Tuesday, i. e., Confession Tuesday.

No one, and least of all the Church, condemns joy or gayety. Man has need of relaxation, of sloughing off the cares of the day and of enjoying himself with his friends. A good laugh is the best kind of constitutional. Horace, who knew how to enjoy life, told the Romans of his day: "Dulce est desipere in loco– Good-natured horseplay is fine in its place." But Aristotle before him had already condemned "most men, and men of the most vulgar type, who identify the good, or happiness with pleasure" (Nicom. Ethics I,5).

St. Augustine can serve us as a safe guide during this period of preparation for Lent, and of course, during the season itself, too. "The pagans," he says, "present each other with gifts of friendship, but you should give alms during these days of wickedness. They shout their songs of love and pleasure; you must learn to find joy in the hearing of the word of God. They run eagerly to the theatre; you must flock to the churches. They guzzle their drinks; you must be temperate and fast."

Orate Fratres: A Liturgical Review, Vol. XVII, No. 4

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