The History of the Maltese Carnival

Carnival in Malta has a long history. The word itself originates from the Italian phrase ‘carne vale’, which means ‘meat is allowed’, since Carnival itself is usually celebrated before the start of Lent, during which meat consumption was not permitted by the Catholic church.photo-by-photocity-3-copy-1100x616

Although the origins of Carnival themselves have pagan roots, tracing back to the follies of the Roman Saturnalia and beyond, we first find actual traces of it in the Maltese islands as of the 1400s, as records were found at the general hospital which indicate that patients were given special meals for this festivity. Food and drink in fact are an important aspect of Carnival, as is the wearing of masks and costumes, signifying the suspension of the normal order of things where social class was all-defining. During Carnival, everyone could make merry. It was a time for jokes, laughter and pranks.

Carnival festivities increased during the time of the Order of Saint John, and the traditional ‘parata’, the sword-dance marking the victory of the Maltese and the Knights against the Turks during the siege of 1565, was introduced. The ‘kukkanja’ was also introduced at this time, this was a sort of game whereby all sorts of food and sweets were tied to a tree-trunk, and the general public was allowed to run and climb the trunk to pick items of food as presents.

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Carnival started to decline during the 19th century when the British governed the islands, as it was not part of British culture, however it still managed to survive. ‘Veljuni’ or masked balls were held in major theaters around Valletta, and even the British governor used to take part in the revelry. When Malta was granted the Constitution in 1921, Carnival evolved even further. Since 1926, outdoor Carnival festivities started being organised in Valletta by special committee. Carnival started to include a défilé of floats, carts and cabs featuring imaginary colorful figures, manned by young people in costume who would blow whistles, throw colored confetti, sound horns and jeer at the crowd while wearing beautifully crafted costumes. Shops or organisations sponsored these floats and they used the event also as an advertisement for their products. In fact, carnival boosts business since street hawkers, vendors and shopkeepers, not to mention bakers, start to plan for it well in advance.

Up to 1974, a part of Valletta’s main square was fenced to create an enclosure which offered space for dancing. Later, the enclosure was relocated to Freedom Square, however when this was closed for the building of Parliament, the enclosure was taken back to Saint George Square.

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Many people could be seen masquerading through the streets as of pre-war days. Some dressed up as ghosts, demons, clowns and fairies, while others simply wore masks. The Maltese Carnival always contained an element of political satire. Grotesquely costume masquers, not to mention floats or ‘karrijiet’ which derided and caricatured particular events and prominent figures, were and are plentiful during this time.

This article was published on LivingInMalta.com – a complete version of it can be found here.

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The Pagan Origins of Carnival – Essay by Pastor Dale Morgan

This essay is so good, I just had to share it.

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From Rio to Berlin, from Turin to Trinidad, from Cologne to New Orleans, crowds filled the city streets in the annual bacchanal that precedes the Catholic holiday known as Ash Wednesday. Increasingly, these celebrations are being taken on by the British and American people as annual celebrations in a vein once foreign to the English-speaking peoples.

What does all this annual expression of unbridled hedonism have to do with the practice of pure religion?

Well, to understand that, we need to go back in history to the beginning of religion as recorded in both secular and biblical history.

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The common view is that Carnival, or Mardi Gras, is, at its origin, a Christian festival that precedes the season of Lent, itself also assumed to be of Christian origin. Carnival traditionally has been seen as the last opportunity to let off steam and indulge the flesh before the denial that is supposed to accompany Lent, the 40-day period that precedes Easter, another annual festival that is assumed to have Christian origins.

But what are the facts?

We assume so much as we grow up, acculturated into an already established society that educates us into the common view of the day. Too often we accept the customs and practices of our parents—and their parents, as well as the generations that preceded them—without question. Yet honest seekers of truth will be led at some point to question the basis of society’s beliefs.

Take Carnival for instance. Its etymology suggests two sources. One suggests carne vale, from the Latin “farewell meat,” as the source. This would appear to be quite a legitimate meaning of the term, given that the onset of Carnival signals the last debauch prior to the fasting at Lent. However, there is another more ancient derivation for Carnival suggested in some sources, the Latin carnous navilus, being a term describing the naval vessel that bore the Teutonic god of the North from his northern home southward to join in the annual pagan winter festivities.

saturnalia1Mardi Gras, synonymous with the Carnival preceding Lent, translated from the French, literally means “fat Tuesday.” This is the final day prior to Ash Wednesday on the Roman Catholic calendar (Shrove Tuesday on the Anglican calendar), the Tuesday before Lent begins. Lent is a tradition in the Roman, Anglican and Orthodox versions of the Christian religion.

Ancient history teaches us that this religion began at Babylon, developed in Egypt, and passed its traditions down to the Greeks and Romans. These civilizations had one thing in common. The highlights of the year on the religious calendar tended to revolve around the winter, signifying the cessation of agrarian productivity and the anticipation of spring, celebrating the renewal of fertility. The pagans created annual rites and festivals around these seasons. Rome adopted and promoted the most widely practiced of these pagan festivals and spread their practice throughout its empire under its own names. Thus the celebrations around the winter solstice became the Saturnalia and Brumalia festivals of winter, celebrated in December. The pre-spring festivals at the onset of the final lean month of winter led into the spring festival of Ishtar in Babylon, or Osiris in Egypt, signaling new birth. In between was the “love-fest” of Lupercalia.

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When the Roman Catholic Church began to spread its influence throughout the world, it found that, wherever it went, the natives hung on tenaciously to these annual pagan festivals. So the church simply compromised. Rather than force Catholic dogma on the local populations, it simply “Christianised” the pagan festivals enjoyed by the masses. Thus Saturnalia and Brumalia became Christmas, merging with the Catholic teaching of the nativity. The spring festivals, retaining the name “Easter” after the pagan fertility goddess Ishtar, merged with the Roman church’s interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In between was Carnival, leading into Mardi Gras, out of which the Vatican created the season of Lent, leading to Easter, by imposing its own interpretation of Christ’s 40-days’ total fast in the wilderness by setting a time for the denial of meat in the 40 days leading up to its Easter celebration. In between Carnival and Easter, Lupercalia became catholicised into St. Valentine’s Day.

Following the Protestant Reformation, the various Protestant denominations that broke away from governance by Rome simply carried on celebrating the same seasons as the Roman church. One of the surprising things about all this is that those who say they base their religion on the Bible, the fundamentalists, can find no proof as to the endorsement of the pagan seasons that they still observe in the very Bible that they claim to follow, least of all in the life they claim to emulate, that of Jesus Christ Himself!

This essay is attributed to Pastor Dale Morgan – for once, a Pastor who is really and truly in touch with history as it is, and not as he wants it to be!