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Catholic Activity: Pre-Lent: Carnival Celebration



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From Chapter 13: Pre-Lent of Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J. Father Weiser explores some of the history and customs of Carnival during the weeks and days before Ash Wednesday.


NAMES — In ancient times, when the law of abstinence was much stricter and included many other foods besides meat, the clergy and a good number of the laity started abstaining progressively during the pre-Lenten season, until they entered the complete fast on Ash Wednesday. After Quinquagesima (the Sunday before Lent) this voluntary fasting began with abstinence from meat; consequently, this Sunday was called Dominica Carnevala from the Latin carnem levare (carnelevarium), which means "withdrawal" or "removal" of meat.43

The German word for this time of carnival is Fassnacht, or Fasching, which probably comes from the ancient vasen ("running around crazily"). It was adopted by the Slavic nations (as fasiangy) and by the Hungarians (as farsang). Another German word of later origin is Fastnacht (Eve of the Fast). The Lithuanians call the carnival season Uzgavenes (Pre-Lent).

Carnival celebrations are still held in most countries of central and western Europe and among the Latin nations of Europe and America.

CARNIVAL FOODS — The primary reason for carnival celebrations is the feasting, rejoicing, and reveling before the imminent season of fast and abstinence. It is a trait of human nature to anticipate approaching privations by greater or lesser excesses. The intensity of this urge, however, should not be judged from the mild Lenten laws of today, but from the strict and harsh observance of ancient times, which makes modern man shiver at the mere knowledge of its details. No wonder the good people of past centuries felt entitled to "have a good time" before they started on their awesome fast. Another reason for the feasting, and a very practical one, was the necessity for finishing those foods which could not be eaten during Lent, and which, in fact, could not even be kept in homes during the fast — meat, butter, cheese, milk, eggs, fats, and bacon. This meant an increased consumption of rich foods and pastries the week before Ash Wednesday. Hence have come the names "Fat Tuesday" (Fetter Dienstag in German; Mardi gras in French); "Butter Week" (Sedmica syrnaja) in Russia and other Slavic countries; and "Fat Days" (Tluste Dni) in Poland.

In the northern counties of England, the Monday of carnival week is "Collop Monday" (from the Latin colpones, cut pieces). Collops consist of sliced meat or bacon, mixed with eggs, and fried in butter.44 In Scotland people eat "Crowdie," a kind of porridge cooked with butter and milk. On Tuesday, England enjoys her famous Shrove Tuesday pancakes. The Germans have pastries called Fassnachtstollen, the Austrians Faschingskrapfen.45

Fasteklvnsboller are sold in Norway in great quantities during carnival time. Resembling our muffins, these "bollers" are sold throughout the whole year plain, but at carnival time they are filled with whipped cream and coated with sugar and frosting.

Russia, before the present regime, attached a national and strictly regulated importance to the several seasons of carnival, Lent, and Easter. Carnival or "Butter Week" was a general holiday. As in the western countries, there are pre-Christian relics in the Russian festival too. In the country districts a fantastic figure called Masslianitsa (Butter Goddess) is gaily decorated and driven about on a sledge while the peasants sing special songs and horovode (folk choruses). At the end of the week it is burned, and a formal farewell is bidden to pleasure until Easter. Rich but unsweetened pancakes (blinni) are served in every household at carnival time.

CARNIVAL FROLICS — Since carnival is a time of feasting and reveling, it was only natural that many elements of the pre-Christian spring lore should have become part of the celebration. Lent excluded the boisterous practices of mumming and masquerading, so what better time could be found for it than the gay days of the carnival? All the familiar features of our modern carnival celebrations are firmly rooted in a tradition that actually dates from about the fourteenth century.

The pre-Christian element of the carnival frolics in the Latin countries seems to be a growth of the Roman Saturnalia, a pagan feast in honor of the field god Saturnus held annually in December.46 Northern countries have adopted customs and rites from the much older Indo-European spring lore.47

The popes, as temporal rulers of their state, acknowledged the carnival practice in Rome by regulating its observance, correcting its abuses, and providing entertainment for the masses. Paul II (1471) started the famous horse races which gave the name Corso to one of Rome's ancient streets, the former Via Lata (broad street). He also introduced the carnival pageants for which the Holy City was famous.48

Within the past few centuries other cities, too, have developed their own special features of carnival celebration, like the famed carnival of Cologne, the parade of gondolas in Venice, the carnival balls of Vienna, the floats and parades in the cities of South America, and the mummers' parade in Philadelphia. The best-known celebration of carnival in America is the famous Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which takes its name from the day on which it is annually held.

FORTY HOURS' DEVOTION — In order to encourage the faithful to atone in prayer and penance for the many excesses and scandals committed at carnival time, Pope Benedict XIV, in 1748, instituted a special devotion for the three days preceding Lent, called "Forty Hours of Carnival," which is held in many churches of Europe and America, in places where carnival frolics are of general and long-standing tradition. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed all day Monday and Tuesday, and devotions are held in the evening, followed by the Eucharistic Benediction.49


43 Nilles, II, 55 ff.

44 Hackwood, 201.

45 Gugitz, I, 27 ff. (Der Faschingskrapfen).

46 R. Corso, Carnevale, EI, 9 (1931), 98 f. 

47 G. Schierghofer, Fastnacht, LThK, 4 (1929), 896.

48 Enc. Brit., 4 (1949), 896; EC, 3 (1949), 903ff.

49 Nilles, II, 64ff.

Activity Source: Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1958