Music, dance, masks, and revelry: the words that come to mind this carnival season. Cities around the world put daily-life activities aside to enjoy the merriment of the season before Lent. New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, and Venice are particularly known for celebrating the most decadent, colorful, and elegant festivities in the world. There are many more places that celebrate it, usually in places where traditionally the Catholic Church had significant influence in the culture, since Carnival is associated with Lent, a season of fasting and abnegation leading to Easter. Carnival, however, may be as ancient as the older religions of Europe.
The word carnival comes from the Italian carnevale, which in turn comes from medieval Latin carnem levare—carnem from Latin caro, meaning 'flesh' or 'meat' and levare, meaning 'to take away' or 'remove.' Although the carnival has been associated with the Lenten season, the celebrations probably go back to the pre-Christian era, where Ancient Romans had many holidays dedicated to their gods. With the rise of Christianity, new holidays and celebrations were added to the calendar, old ones faded away or took on a different meaning. Equinoctial and other spring-related holidays were either outlawed for their overt pagan rituals or were reinvented to accommodate new beliefs. Carnival was part of the Epiphany celebrations that lasted until Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season; the last days before Ash Wednesday were people's last days of indulging in the excesses of this world before abstaining from food, drink, and merriment.
By the middle ages, in Italy, masquerade balls, parades, and pageants were being organized and the custom quickly spread to other areas of Europe. German-speaking peoples in southern Germany, Switzerland, and parts of Austria also had celebrations before Lent that went back to the pre-Christian period that they call Fastnacht or Fasching.
When Portugal, Spain, and France went and conquered new lands in Africa, the Americas, and Asia, they took with them holidays that they introduced to the peoples of those places. In what would become Mexico, for example, as Catholicism was becoming widespread, many indigenous peoples readily adopted the new celebrations of their conquerors and added them to their own, which over time became the colorful processions of masked performers blending pre-Hispanic and Spanish influences in the numerous towns of Mexico. Today, the cities of Mazatlán, Veracruz, and Ensenada are some of the most famous in Mexico. Another North American city that is famous for its carnival celebration is New Orleans, where the event is called Mardi Gras, or 'Fat Tuesday.' New Orleans, having been founded by the French, carried on with the tradition of celebrating the holiday even after the American acquisition of the Louisiana Territory. The name Mardi Gras alludes to the same concept that the Tuesday before Lent was the last day to gorge on fatty foods, drink one's fill, and revel in the excesses of the flesh. No carnival can compete, however, with the Rio de Janeiro Carnival in Brazil, where samba, beaches, colorful floats, and beautiful people wearing the most spectacular costumes make the celebration one of the most visited places of the season. Of course, the Caribbean region is full of fun and flare during this season, especially in Trinidad and Tobago, and in the Indian state of Goa, which up until 1961 was a Portuguese colony, where it is one of the many colorful festivities that graces the Indian subcontinent.
If there is anything we can learn from Carnival, it is the human need to leave everything behind for a couple of days and let loose. As technological advances permeate our modern world, it has become easy to remain connected to the daily tasks that toil away at our human existence and hinder us to take a break and occasionally recharge our souls. Carnival, and many other holidays connected to spring fertility rites and renewal celebrations, has allowed humanity to celebrate life, enjoy the pleasures of this world, and, simply, be human.