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Do you know the literal, Catholic meaning of the word “carnival”?

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Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Zelda Caldwell - published on 02/12/18

The Lenten roots of a familiar English word

When you hear the word “carnival” the first thing that comes to mind might be a traveling fair, with rides and games and cotton candy.

It’s such a familiar word that we might be surprised to learn that “carnival” refers to the beginning of Lent, a time when Christians traditionally exercise self-denial, such as abstinence from meat, in preparation for Easter.

According to a post at the Visual Thesaurus, the words date back to a northern Italian dialect from the 12th century that used the words carnelevale or carnelevare, which came from the Latin phrase carnem levare or “the taking away of meat.”

In other words – carnival is a time to feast and be merry, for tomorrow there will be no meat.

The traveling carnival was popularized in the United States after the success of the 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, which featured automated rides, animal side shows and the first Ferris-Wheel. Posters advertised the fair’s “Grand Columbian Carnival,” a name inspired by the European festivals marking the beginning of  Lent, and chosen to fit the fair’s theme: the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in America. It stuck, and the “carnival” continues to be used to describe these movable amusement parks.

Of course, the word “carnival” is still used in the Americas in its traditional Lenten sense at Rio’s Carnival and the carnival at New Orlean’s Mardi Gras celebrations, both of which occur on the day before Lent. Whether the millions who attend these bacchanals are there to say “farewell to meat” is, one could safely say, probably unlikely.

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