Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy Mardi Gras

Happy Mardi Gras!

To-day is Shrove Tuesday or as the French call it Mardi Gras (literally Fat Tuesday). It is a day of festivity and feasting before the austerity of Lent, which starts to-morrow, Ash Wednesday.

Across the world the day is marked by excess, merriment and jollity. Many cities have their Mardi Gras celebrations to-day, whilst Rio has its famously flamboyant Carnaval and ancient crimbling Venice its opulently baroque masked Carnevale.

The origin of the name "carnival" is disputed. Variants in Italian dialects suggest that the name comes from the Italian carne levare or similar, meaning "to remove meat", since meat is prohibited during Lent.

A different explanation states that the word comes from the Late Latin expression carne vale, which means "farewell to meat", signifying that those were the last days when one could eat meat before the fasting of Lent. Yet another translation depicts carne vale as "a farewell to the flesh", a phrase embraced by certain carnival celebrations that encourage letting go of your former (or everyday) self and embracing the carefree nature of the festival. However, explanations proceeding from carne vale seem to be folk etymologies and are not supported by philological evidence.

Another possible explanation comes from the term "Carrus Navalis" (ship cart), the name of the Roman festival of the goddess Isis, where her image was carried to the sea-shore to bless the start of the sailing season. The festival consisted in a parade of masks following an adorned wooden boat, that would reflect the floats of modern carnivals.

In Britain we have Pancake Day, where households used up their fats and sugars before the lean month of Lenten abstinance by making pancakes, usually served with lemon juice and sugar. This evening, more than any other night, Britain should be filled from coast-to-coast with tossers!

The word shrove is the past participle of the English verb to shrive, which means to obtain absolution for one's sins by way of confession and doing penance. During the week before Lent, sometimes called Shrovetide in English, Christians were expected to go to confession in preparation for the penitential season of turning to God.

I have shown Harlequin tossing a pancake in a marriage of English and Italian traditions. Harlequin, or Arlecchino in Italian, is the most popular of the 'zanni' or comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte tradition and its descendant, the Harlequinade. The Commedia dell'arte is the common ancestor of both modern-day circus clowns and Punch & Judy puppet theatre. He is often associated with Carnevale. Never malicious but always good-humoured he uses his wits and cunning to turn difficult situations on their heads, though he will sometimes use his Batte or slap-stick (from which we get the term!) to bring down the pompous.

Happy Mardi Gras/ Pancake Day!

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