Origins of Carnival
History of Carnival has ancient origins, and quite uncertain too. In Catholic culture, Carnival, whose name comes from carnem levare (to remove meat), represents the period immeditely before Lent, when meat is prohibited.
However, history of Carnival seems to have even more ancient origins, dating back to the Graeco-Roman period, when they used to celebrate pagan rituals in honor of deity Saturn, who embodied prosperity and wealth. During this festival there was a reversal of roles between patriciate and plebs, everybody wore masks, and libation and pleasures used to be unrestrained.
In Middle Ages, Carnival celebration used to be quite similar. The main difference was a sort of trial to the prejudice of a puppet, whipping boy for the the evils of the past year.
History of Carnival, thus, gives this feast a quite different meaning from the actual one: it was a way to say goodbye to winter and welcome spring. Anyway, unrestrained celebration of Middle Ages was soon downsized by Church. So, Carnival started to be represented by strolling players performing for the Courts.
History of Carnival teaches that masks represent vices and virtues of humanity. You can see that even by considering the main masked characters of Italian Commedia dell’arte. Pulcinella represents the crafty, dissolute, saucy Neapolitan disposition. Pantalone is a greedy and lustful Venetian merchant. Arlecchino is an astute and lazy Bergamo servant. They say some of these masked characters have a a demoniac origin, represented, for instance, by the black mask worn by Arlecchino and Pulcinella.
Nowadays, Carnival is celebrated in many countries around the world, and not always during the same days. Celebration usually involve a parade of floats, fancy-dress parties and pantomimes.
Here in Italy we use to boast a few of the most famous Carnival festivals in the world: carnival of Venice, Viareggio, Putignano, Cento, and Foiano.