The Italian Carnival: A Venetian Tradition

It’s Carnival week in Italy. And our small town, like many, holds a traditional parade and a masked street party. But no Italian carnival celebration in Italy is more famous than that of Venice.

The word carnival means to remove meat or bid it farewell. It is a time of merrymaking or revelry before the approaching fast of Lent, in which the celebrants take on another identity. And thereby lay aside their own flesh or identity. Then, wearing their mask and costume, they are free to do whatever they wish. In this manner, it is not the celebrants themselves who perform any deeds. It is their assumed personalities who act.

The history of Carnival in Italy

Carnival has long been a popular holiday here in Italy. The festival dates back to Roman times when it honored the Roman god Saturnalia. But the church soon labeled it a “Christian” holiday and tied it to Lent.

Some early Catholic leaders condemned Carnival and its pagan practices. Pope Gregory the Great attempted to set a clear division between Carnival and Lent. He even sent missionaries to sanctify any excesses during Carnival.

But the people refused to abandon their time of revelry and debauchery. So church authorities eventually incorporated Carnival into their liturgical year. Despite the sexual orgies and excessive amounts of alcohol and rich foods. After all, Lent was around the corner, when they would have to fast and go without.

The Venetian Carnival

The history of the Venetian Carnival is even more interesting.

Venetians didn’t limit mask-wearing only to Carnival. Although no one seems to know how or why the custom started, mask wearing in public was quite common. Mask makers held a special place in society, governed by separate laws. But city laws also regulated what masked people could do. For instance, they could not gamble or play certain games.

Nowadays, Carnival and Lent seem as intertwined as grapes are with their vines. Few question either Carnival’s pagan roots or its raucous and rowdy behavior. Most Italians love the festival. Schools usually hold masquerade parties. Towns hold street parties and parades, with the tossing of confetti and horn blowing.

Confetti, called coriandoli here, also has a rich history. Paper was scarce and expensive. So people tossed coriander seeds (coriandoli) glued to thin layers of plaster. As paper became more common, it replaced the seeds. But by then the name coriandoli had already taken hold.

Carnival sweets: Chiacchere and Struffoli

The Italian carnival tradition also includes sweets, like Chiacchere and Struffoli. The one part of Carnival that we love!

The word chiacchere means gossip or useless chitchat. And it seems to stem from the fact that they’re so easy to make with only a handful of ingredients. Much like gossip, where people sometimes make up all kinds of things from very few facts, or even from none at all!

The struffoli sweets come with different names according to region. In Abruzzo we call them Cicerchiata. Because they’re often formed into a circle or ring shape, as their name suggests. But in my husband’s Salerno area they’re known as Struffoli. Of Greek origin, the word struffoli means small round balls. But best of all, these delicious honey-drenched sweets are often served at Christmas and Easter too!

Hubby and I don’t celebrate Carnival. The whole idea of hiding behind a mask to do whatever you want seems rather deceitful to us. We’d rather deal with real people. Maskless, because we like knowing upfront who we’re dealing with. What you see is what you get.

We’ve probably all known masked people over the years. And not Zorro type, trying to do good. False friends, people who, in the end bring harm. So the thought I’d like to leave with you is this.

Do you hide behind masks? Or are you a real person? The kind others can trust, because you really are what you seem?

Images: Masks by Annca | Carnival costume by Noveaumonde | Struffoli by Nataliaaggiato | Chiacchiere by Di Clop – Opera propria.

22 thoughts on “The Italian Carnival: A Venetian Tradition

  1. I too knew nothing of the history of carnival. It sounds much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I wonder how many take note that over-indulging the senses does not assuage the spirit? If anything, a person feels worse after binging! Once again, God knows best: “Eating too much honey can make you sick” (Proverbs 25:16).

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  2. Reread this and was stunned by the reality of how many people truly wear masks–and often don’t even realize it’s become a permanent fixture of their lives. Living authentically is a challenge today!

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  3. I learned so much from what you wrote, Sheila. How eye-opening! I have never wanted to participate in events like Mardi Gras or Carnival. Your history confirms that decision. But those delicious treats might be another story for me! 🙂

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  4. I’ll stick with going mask-less and enjoying the strufolli. As I suspect happens in Venice and other Italian cities during Carnival (I always think of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and New Orleans, LA), I’m sure there’s “onlookers” who watch the activities from afar without participating. I’ve been guilty of being in that crowd, but two things have convicted me in the past so I now try and avoid it all together. The first was realizing that looking at others’ sin is in itself tempting me to partake. The second was realizing that I was judging those who did choose to participate. It simply isn’t my place to judge. As for the strufolli, I’d have to remind myself that gluttony is a sin also. Gee, I want a doughnut to go with my coffee all of a sudden. 🙂

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    1. I hear what you’re saying JD. I avoid the Carnival scene altogether because too much of what goes on is spiritually unhealthy. But the Carnival treats – those are another story! I don’t run the risk of gluttony because I’m not a huge fan of sweets, but I do enjoy tasting! And a nice fresh donught would taste really good about now!

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    1. We didn’t know most of it either Dayle until moving over here. It’s quite a debated item among the Christian community. Although I would say that most of the younger believers don’t even consider not participating. This seems very sad to me. Glad you found the article helpful!

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    1. Carnival is actually a very big deal here. And there is much debate among believers. Should we, or shouldn’t we. I am personally not comfortable with it. But yes, the history behind it is fascinating. But then, I’m a history buff!

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        1. Not comfortable with the debate or with Halloween itself? I personally don’t mind debate as long as it’s done with love and respect. But I don’t care for either Halloween or Carnival.

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          1. Oh, I meant Halloween makes me uncomfortable, meaning I don’t celebrate it. 🙂 I don’t mind discussions either. Unfortunately, those topics tend to get heated quickly.

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          2. I thought that’s what you meant TR. And yes some topics get very heated. I guess we forget that it’s OK to just agree to disagree. And that showing love is more important than being right!

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    1. For sure Lynn! Italy, as most Catholic nations, are pretty big on celebrating it. When they have the celebration here in our town, things can be pretty raucous. In early afternoon, when it’s just the kids in their costume parade, it’s not too bad, but late afternoon and evening it is not a scene we want to witness or be part of! Quite depressing.

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  5. Thank you for explaining Carnival and its roots, of which I was blissfully unaware. Happy to hear you don’t celebrate it. Knowing its origins, I wouldn’t either. I treasure authenticity. Jesus is our model for living authentic lives.

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    1. I didn’t know much about Carnival either before moving here Kathryne. A good portion of Christians don’t celebrate it, so we asked why and soon understood. The only good part for us are those yummy sweets, which Mario can’t pass up buying at the bakery. He grew up with them!

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