Carnivals in Europe

February is peak carnival time in Europe. With Ash Wednesday marking the start of Lent, Carnival was traditionally seen as the pre-Lenten period when homes had to purge themselves of any rich food and drink in preparation for 6 weeks of abstention and self-denial. The origins of the word carnival are thought to have emerged from the Italian “carne levare” to remove meat. Households would not eat meat during the Lenten period, and as the invention of the freezer was still a few hundred years off they’d have to make sure they’d cooked and eaten it all before Lent started. It was essentially a medieval version of the final festive blowout before the diet starts on 2nd January!

Masked purple lady at Venice Carnival

Masked purple lady at Venice Carnival


Here are a few of the biggest carnivals in Europe:

The Carnival of Venice was one of the original carnivals and first recorded in 1268. Although abandoned from late 18th century for almost 180 years the carnival is now a massive celebration with over 3 million visitors coming to see the stunning costumes complete with famous masks.

Float at Viareggio Carnival

Float at Viareggio Carnival

The Viareggio Carnival on the Tuscan coastline is another huge festival of amazing floats held over a few Sundays in the run up to and during Lent. The floats feature satirical figures, usually from the world of Italian politics, so to understand the jokes you do have to have a bit of background knowledge, but nevertheless it is an amazing spectacle and always packed.

The Carnival in Nice is another huge event dating from the late 13th century. With various parades taking place over a couple of weeks on the Promenade des Anglais, the floats  are worked on throughout the year in the “maison du carnaval” – surely an amazing place to work!

Although street carnivals have taken place in Cologne for hundreds of years the carnival in Cologne has been officially organised since 1823. At its peak, between the Thursday and Monday before Lent, there are numerous processions and stage shows all culminating in over a million people out on the streets to watch the Rose Monday parade, making it one of the biggest street festivals in Europe.

Children dressed for Carnival

Children dressed for Carnival

The rather unusual carnival of the “Battle of the Oranges” is held in Ivrea in the Italian Alps. Legend has it that the oranges represent the chopped off head of a duke who was refused his “right” to bed one of the local ladies. It’s never been quite clear why oranges are used as they don’t grow in the Alps and vast quantities have to be imported every year.

Apart from these huge organised events there are numerous small local events held in towns and villages, and schools often have a carnival day (usually Shrove Tuesday) where the children can come in fancy dress.

What about you? Have you attended any carnival events? We’d love to hear your favourite place to celebrate carnival.

Photo credit (Venice Carnival): Flickr

Categories: Europe

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