Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mardi Gras, Carnival and Pancake Day

In many Christian countries, today is Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day or the final day of Carnival. Since Lent, the forty day period of fasting and penitence, starts tomorrow, it seems like a great idea to use up everything you can't consume during that time. Most festivities involve indulging in a variety of rich foods that are usually quite fatty or sugary.

It's good to have a mask in hand in case
you get up to all kinds of mischief.
Lent is the period in which Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days, and Christians love doing things just like their lord and savior. For the forty days of Lent, they too try to avoid extravagant foods, parties and generally things that are fun. However, the final days before it starts can sometimes be the cause of the biggest celebrations of the year. If you have to give up everything fun for a while, you want to make sure you enjoy yourself as much as possible beforehand, obviously!

Perhaps the most famous of these celebrations is known as Carnaval, Carnivale or Carnival. The famous festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil features extravagant parades and a huge level of partying. In Portuguese, which is spoken in Brazil, it's called Carnaval.

The word Carnaval has an interesting story, though there is some dispute as to where it really comes from. Some believe that it comes from the Italian carne levarae, meaning "to remove meat", since meat is considered inappropriate to consume during Lent.

Others believe that Latin carne vale was the origin of the word. It means "a farewell to meat". It's also a plausible origin, since you may as well say goodbye to meat because as a Christian you shouldn't be eating it.

A third possibility comes from the Latin carrus navalis, an alternative name for the Navigium Isidis, the ship of Isis. The festival included a parade of people with masks following an elaborate wooden boat on land, of course. It's believed that this paved the way for parade floats, which much like the model of the Navigium Isidis, are rarely seen floating.

Mmmm... delicious pancakes.
In Britain, the name for today is Pancake Day. Like all other rich foods consumed before Lent, pancakes are a staple of the UK. The official name in English is Shrove Tuesday, with shrove coming from the English verb shrive, meaning "to obtain absolution for one's sins through confession and doing penance". However, Pancake Day will be heard on the lips of most Brits because pancakes are far more delicious!

The French name for today is Mardi Gras, which literally means Fat Tuesday for the same reasons that the British eat pancakes. Due to the popularity of Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans and the large French and Creole-speaking populations there, the name is also popular throughout the U.S. and Canada.

However, the best name of all for the day may be one of the least known. In Iceland, today is known as Sprengidagur, which is celebrated by eating salted meat and peas. Maybe not the most exciting foods, but the name translates to "Bursting Day"... can it get any better than that?