Venice Carnival: the Cultural Bash That Attracts 3 Million People Every Year

Soaked in vanity, pageantry and masked galas, Venice Carnival offers Italians and tourists a brief escape before Lent arrives.

By: Francesca Montillo, ISDA Contributing Editor 

You’ve certainly seen images of it, and perhaps have been intrigued by it all. The masks, the music, the rowdy behavior, the overindulgence, but what exactly is Carnival? There’s more to it than the masks, right? And why even wear one?

​Catholics celebrate Ash Wednesday on Feb. 26, and though the date changes every year, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent—the 40 days (minus the Sundays) before Easter. As Catholic tradition has it, Lent should be a period of sacrifice, consisting of abstinence, self-denial and fasting. Well, if one is aware in advance that the next 40 days are going to be sacrificial, what better way to prepare for them than going out with a bang? And that’s precisely what Carnival is: a pre-Lent period of celebration, festivities and a little gluttony.

​Celebrated with parties, music, dancing, parades, alcohol and excess, Carnival runs from Feb. 8-25. Revelers, young, old and anywhere in between take to the streets in celebration of what is sure to be a grand old time. The term Carnival is believed to come from the Latin terms “carne” and “vale”—or the removal of flesh. One could safely assume that implies the removal of meat from your diet, as well as pleasures of the flesh. Carnival was also a good way to remove all those foods that were to be off limits during lent, from the home. Meats, fried foods, sweets and other rich ingredients were off limits, so the best way to quickly dispose of them would be to throw a party! Out of sight, out of mind, so no temptation during Lent.

In one way or another, Carnival is celebrated in many parts of the world. New Orleans has Mardi Gras and Rio de Janeiro has perhaps one of the wildest Carnival parties around. But of course, being Italian, my own personal favorite is celebrated in Venice. I will admit, I have never been to Venice during Carnival season. I’ve been there during the summer, and have added returning during Carnival to my “life list.” (Yes, I call it “life list”—bucket list is just so dreadful and morbid!) After all, some 3 million people visit Venice during Carnival, what’s one more, right?

Venice has been celebrating Carnival “on again, off again” since 1162. Having just won their victory over the Patriarch of Aquileia, Venetians took to the streets for celebration. Masks were always important to Venetians, and they were permitted to wear them from the day after Christmas until the day before Ash Wednesday. Also worn during other times of the year, it wouldn’t be unheard of for Venetians to wear masks for upwards of six months of the year! Masks permitted the generally reserved and “high society” Venetians to partake in risky business, such as gambling, or mingling with the higher class. Masks took one out of character and allowed one to become someone else (transgressions were not unheard of).

​There certainly isn’t a lack of entertainment in Venice during this time of year. St. Mark’s Square becomes a festive and joyous piazza filled with locals and tourists alike, wearing masks and costumes. Food stalls are common, selling local items such as the famous peach Bellinis to frittelle, or fried dough. (If you’re looking for a great recipe eaten during Carnival, be sure to check this recipe for Chiacchiere out!) Many events are family-friendly and free, while some require tickets and an admission fee. Many parades include children dressed as cartoon characters. Music festivals fill the streets and “invite only” masquerade balls are also very common.

​Many celebrations can be very expensive but numerous hotels host their own masquerade balls, so this may be a great option. Fancy dress-up gowns can be rented, though I advise buying a mask and keeping it as a souvenir. They are wonderful ornamental items that can be carefully displayed on your wall.

But remember, don’t get too risqué while wearing your mask, because if so, you may need 80 days to cleanse your sins, instead of the usual 40 during Lent.

Read more at Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures.

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