Yesterday was the last day of Carnival, and so Christians around the world are getting over their celebrations and starting their fast for Ash Wednesday. I have lived in 3 different Christian-majority countries in my life, and one thing I noticed is how very differently Carnival is celebrated across the world.
Generally speaking, the purpose of Carnival is twofold: First it’s to get the partying and gluttony out of your system before embarking on the restrictive and pious period of Lent, and the second is to have a period of time in which societal norms are challenged and broken, if only for a short period of time. However, the way that different cultures do this varies dramatically.
In Italy, Carnival is mostly a children’s holiday. Kids dress up, throw colored paper confetti all over the place, and their parents accompany them though they hardly ever dress up themselves. There is also the saying a Carnevale ogni scherzo vale, which means at Carnival any joke goes, making Carnival a time for childish pranks similar to Halloween in the States. Carnival is so much a kid’s holiday that if you are an adult, dressed up and unaccompanied by children, people will look at you like the weird childless man lurking around the jungle gym.
The exception to this is Venice, where Carnival is very much an adult holiday. Originally, Carnival was the day that social stations were voided, as people were not recognized as a person but as a mask. They would address each other as Mister or Lady Mask, and once this suspension of societal norms was acknowledged by the other by responding in the same way, they could proceed to speak to each other in whichever direct or lewd way that they pleased. These days, on the Tuesday before Lent you will see some truly spectacular masks and breathtakingly elegant costumes, though the real parties are the ones that go on behind closed doors. While I have never been invited to a private Venetian Carnival party, the rumors of what goes on in one abound. Rules of prim societal conduct are suspended, children are not around, and everything from bawdy jokes to excessive drinking to cheating on spouses is supposedly tolerated and expected.
In Brazil, Carnival is also an openly sexual holiday. The skimpy Carnival costumes are famous across the world, but many people don’t know that it is also very common for complete strangers to kiss each other in the street. If you walk around Salvador during Carnival, for example, be prepared for people to come up to you and plant a nice smack on the lips. This is not considered cheating or an invitation to come to bed (though many might still take you up on it if you propose it), but rather an open celebration of joy. The sexual connotations of Carnival are also mirrored in Louisiana for Mardi Gras, which is famous for young people getting quite drunk and quite naked.
In Ireland there is no such thing as Carnival, but rather they refer to Mardi Gras as “Pancake Tuesday”, where everyone eats a whole lot of pancakes. The idea is that you use up all of the sweet things in your house by using them as pancake fillers, thus removing temptation from you home during Lent. This was by far the tamest kind of Carnival celebration that I have ever experienced.
In Germany, the situation is different still. While not all areas of Germany really celebrate Carnival, it is certainly a very big deal in Nordrhein Westfalen, and most famously in Cologne. Here, both adults and children dress up and celebrate Carnival, and adults will often even show up to their office jobs dressed as everything and anything, from giant pink bunnies and Disney characters to dictators. I was surprised to find that, when in Cologne for the Carnival Monday, the parade threw candy into the almost exclusively adult crowd, which fought ferociously over the candy scattered amongst them. I discovered that, if you want to keep a single piece of that candy for yourself, be prepared to use your elbows.
The breaking down of societal norms in this part of Germany has much less to do with open sexuality, and far more to do with political commentary. If you are a man in Cologne on the Thursday of Carnival, make sure that you are not wearing a tie, unless you appreciate groups of angry German women brandishing scissors to chase you down and cut it off. Thursday is the Women’s day, as a rebellion against a male-dominated society. On this Thursday many women will take the day off work, hold women-only parades, storm and take over offices of the city hall and yes, cut off men’s ties as a symbol of rebelling against male oppression.
The political tone of German Carnival celebrations is also evident in the floats that are used during the parades. Two such floats in Düsseldorf made headlines around the world, as it was quite a harsh take on the current American political climate.
I would say NSFW… but then again it was shown on the news. Let’s say, NSFW in the States, perhaps.
I’m sure some eyebrows, and some cheers, were raised when this float passed before the crowd.
As you can see in the background, this float was immediately followed by another one.
Damn. Those floats are harsh, and yet depressingly accurate.
I think that Americans will be surprised to know how strong the political commentary can get during Carnival in Germany. I often here Americans comment on the fact that Germany does not hold the same freedom of expression rights that the US does, as a result of what happened in WWII, and yet two such floats would definitely not have been approved in the US. It is interesting to me how differently we all approach things like expression and the challenging of societal expectations and pressures.
While I am not a Catholic and have no interest in Lent, I still appreciate a good party whenever there is one. Regardless of whether or not the original source stems from religion, if the celebration is fun, I’m all for it. I may not have any interest in dressing up like a cowgirl or Snow White, but watching the floats in the different cities across Germany definitely did interest me.
And I’ll take an invitation to a private Venetian Carnival party any day. That one remains on my bucket list.