Cultural Differences: Carnival Celebrations

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.



  1. cartomancer says

    A lot of these differences can be traced to historical differences in how, when and how effectively Christian authorities dealt with the traditions and rituals of European folk culture. In Italy, the heartland of the Medieval church, pre-christian spring celebrations of renewal and social inversion were successfully co-opted and christianised by successive early medieval popes. Carnival became regulated, state-run and part of the liturgical calendar in medieval Italy. During this period it lost a lot of the pointed challenge to the political and social order that earlier spring festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia represented – the rapidly consolidating papacy could not long abide serious critique of its traditions. In Germany, however, it remained much less centralised and much more in the control of local people and local rulers to do what they wanted with. The pre-christian traditions retained a much greater role in medieval German carnival culture, as did the festival’s spirit of anti-authoritarianism and serious critique of the powerful.

    One rather sordid result of this was that Medieval Roman carnival celebrations often involved the ritual humiliation of the city’s Jewish population, an activity that was considered a good fit for a celebration focused on the impending Easter period, where inversion and humiliation of the powerful could be focused safely on distrusted outsiders.

    Venice remained very independent throughout its commercial height during the central Middle Ages, and owed much less to the papacy than most of the rest of Italy. Though its traditions of opulent masked excess during Carnevale stem mostly from its period of decline and ferment in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it fell into the role of decadent tourist trap for the wealthy after its commercial and political power had deserted it.

    In Britain and Ireland there was not really a strong pre-Christian tradition of carnivalesque celebration to begin with, and spring rites tended to be more solemn affairs. Bawdiness, drinking and social abandon were never formailsed and legitimated by custom in the same way as in mainland Europe – they were tacitly accepted as just something that will happen from time to time and not given formal ritual outlets. Centuries of Norman suspicion of any kind of Saxon rebelliousness put the end to any tradition of sanctified play with power roles – it being something of a prerequisite for a festival of power inversion that both rulers and ruled are comfortable with the situation. The celebration of Carnival was pretty much done away with entirely by the Anglican church as pre-christian pagan superstition, leaving just the practical vestige of Pancake Day. During the formative early medieval period when Italian carnevale traditions developed, Ireland was somewhat isolated from mainstream Catholic culture, and christian observance tended to be heavily influenced by Ireland’s powerful monastic communities, who were rather sour on the whole business of carnal indulgence for obvious reasons.

    I don’t know much about Brazil and why Carnival is such a sexualised thing there, but I would expect there to be some interplay between the culture of the Catholic Portugese conquerors and native traditions in it.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    cartomancer @ # 1: … earlier spring festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia …

    Last I heard, Saturnalia (at least pre-Anthropogenic Global Warming) was a winter (solstice) celebration.

    Thanks for the clarification about British “carnival” and the Norman Yoke!

  3. cartomancer says

    Pierce R. Butler

    Actually, Saturnalia started out as a harvest celebration, (Saturn being the god of agriculture) and gradually became a winter festival. Though in climate terms it sometimes was celebrated in the spring before the introduction of the Julian calendar because earlier Roman calendars kept getting out of sync with the climatic cycle. Nevertheless, the medieval Carnival generally started in the middle of winter, when the Saturnalia and festivals like it were common, and lasted for months, only ending when Lent began.

    Though the direct link between the two is often exaggerated. We actually know very little about traditional Saturnalian rites and celebrations – most of what we have has been extrapolated from Macrobius’ s very late (5th century AD) description of a Saturnalian feast among his rarefied literary elite circle. Which is rather like trying to piece together how Tudor peasants celebrated Easter from a description of an Easter party in a trendy London flat in the mid 2000s.

    • Pierce R. Butler says

      My, Saturn did get around calendrically, didn’t he?

      …the Saturnalia and festivals like it were common, and lasted for months…

      I have great difficulty imagining a steeply hierarchical society maintaining any role-inversion game for more than a few days, if that.

  4. says

    If you go further south in Germany and into Switzerland you get many of the pagan traditions and traditional masks.
    The typical military looking hats and dresses you get in the Rhineland date back to the Napoleonic times whne they were a political statement against the occupying French army.


    The breaking down of societal norms in this part of Germany has much less to do with open sexuality,

    It’s got a lot to do with sexual assault, though, which is one of the reasons why, when I still went out for carnival, only went out with my gay friends to the “warm night”. The probability of a drunk woman grabbing your genitals without asking isn’t zero, but the probability of a drunk hetero guy doing that during a normal Carnival night is close to 1.

    BTW, don’t forget German Berliner as an important tradition, though they’re now available all year round. Same principle as in pancakes: Use the eggs*, sugar, etc.

    *Eggs used to be taboo for Lent as well. That’S why they’re also boiled for Easter as that makes them last longer.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      I didn’t go into the traditional Carnival foods on purpose, as that would take up multiple blog posts by itself! But yes, traditional Carnival sweets are found around the world, though the only thing they seem to have in common is that they are almost certainly fried.

  5. Arctic Ape says

    Finland possibly beats Ireland in “tamest celebration ever”.

    On Carnival Tuesday it’s traditional to eat pea soup (thick mushy stuff with some fatty pork in it) and some sweet dessert like pancake. To some extent, this is also a thing on regular Thursdays, as if you’re preparing for Friday lent. Generally nobody knows or cares why you should eat pea soup on these particular days, and it may be gradually going out of style anyway. The pea soup you get in lunch cafeterias nowadays tends to be watered down stuff because most people don’t actually like peas and pork fat that much.

    On Palm Sunday (week before Easter), Finnish children go door to door dressed as witches, chanting blessings and receiving candy. This tradition is a recent fusion of Eastern Orthodox tradition (delivering blessings and charms to people, receiving sweets) and pagan Scandinavian tradition (running around in witch costumes to scare evil spirits).

    • Ice Swimmer says

      Some two weeks late to the game. Besides these things, snow conditions permitting, children and to some extent students will slide down some hill with various equipment (sled, pulkka, a big trash bag, basically anything that will slide well on snow.), yelling “Pitkiä pellavia!” (Long linen fibers!).

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