Italy’s Carnival: What Mask Do You Wear?

Carnival starts today, which is a big celebration in our little town, with its historic tradition of a parade and a masked public street party. A holiday I had always wondered about.

Because Carnival is considered a Christian holiday, probably because of its relation to lent. But the concept behind Carnival is actually an overturning of life’s normal standards. A time when, mask firmly in place, the person is free to do whatever they want.

Carnival, after all, literally means either farewell to meat or farewell to the flesh. And putting on the carnival mask, really is like leaving your own flesh behind, to take up another identity.

So I personally question it being a Christian holiday. I find no Christian aspects about any holiday where it becomes perfectly acceptable to abandon good, wholesome social norms, and where anything goes. During carnival it becomes normal to consume excess alcohol, overeat rich foods, and indulge in sex as much as possible. After all, Lent is coming when you’ll have to do without.

Nonetheless, Carnival does have an interesting history. And in Italy, no Carnival celebration is more famous than that in Venice.

Although, interestingly, the Venetians didn’t limit mask-wearing only to Carnival. Although no one seems to know just how or why the custom started, wearing masks in public was quite common. Mask makers, in fact, were given a special place in society. Their artesian guilds even had their own laws.

And not only. The city also had laws regulating what masked people could and could not do. Like for instance, they could not gamble or play certain games.

Carnival has long been a big holiday here in Italy, ever since the Roman days, with their celebration honoring the Roman god Saturnalia.

Yet early on, the Catholic church tried to distance itself from the celebrations. And when that failed, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) decided that the Lenten fast wouldn’t start until Ash Wednesday, after Carnival’s end. They wanted to keep Lent and Carnival separate.

But anymore, the two seem as intertwined as grapes are with their vines. And few any longer question either Carnival’s pagan roots or its raucous and rowdy behavior. Most Italians, in fact, love the festival. Schools usually hold masked dress up parties for the children. Towns, both big and small, have street parties and parades. And two things are never lacking.

The tossing of confetti, which here we call coriandoli. 

The origin of these colorful paper bits makes for an interesting story. Originally, people tossed coriander seeds (coriandoli) glued to thin layers of plaster. When paper became more common, it gradually replaced the seeds. But by then the name coriandoli had already stuck!

And the one part of Carnival that we also love: the Chiacchiere and the Struffoli!

And in the chiacchiere we find another interesting name. The word means gossip or useless chitchat. This odd name for these sweets seems to stem from the fact that they’re so easy to make from only a handful of ingredients. Just like gossip, where people manage to make up all kinds of things from very few facts!

Here in Abruzzo we call them Cicerchiata, possibly because they’re often formed into a ring shape, as their name suggests. But in my husband’s hometown, they’re known as Struffoli, from the Greek, meaning little round ball.

But no matter which sweet you choose, they’re delicious! And easy to make. Check out this cicerchiata recipe from Academia Barilla if you’d like to try making some! And remember these honey dripped goodies are not only for Carnival, but in many areas are also served at Christmas or Easter.

We don’t celebrate Carnival. The whole idea of hiding behind a mask just 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 known masked people through the years. And trust me, they weren’t the Zorro type, trying to do good. They proved false friends, people who, in the end, stabbed us in the back. 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 people can really trust, because what they see really is what they get?

My hope and prayer is that I will never wear a mask. I want to be true blue, real, and dependable. A person you can trust.

Isn’t that your prayer too?

[Images: Carnival masks by annca / Pixabay CC0. Venice Gran Canal ©TheScorziellos-Mario.]

8 thoughts on “Italy’s Carnival: What Mask Do You Wear?

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I know I sure learned a lot writing it. And I’m always glad to meet someone new who has Italy in their heart too! Thanks so much for your visit and comment!

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  1. I know that Carnival in Rio can be a time of danger to some people. I read an article by a man who was there and he said murder can be common during Carnival. I’ve seen pictures of Carnival in New Orleans, and no, it doesn’t look like a party that would promote good behavior. It is a wild and sensual time of giving in to your lower nature.

    Do I wear masks? I wear masks when I am feeling depressed and utterly sad. I put a smile on my face for everyone, because I don’t think I should ruin their day and there is nothing they can do to help me. I go to God for help with my sadness. He always helps me. So, I do think wearing masks is sometimes a good thing. I’d like to know what you think.

    I remember my granddaughter saying, “Grandma is always happy.” This was during a time of great mental turmoil and depression for me. I’m glad she never knew what I was going through.

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    1. I know what you mean, Belle. Carnival can become pretty dangerous. Probably because so many get rip-roaring drunk.

      I do agree with you that wearing the type of “mask” you suggest can be OK. It’s unwise to unburden our hearts to everyone. And unwise to place heavy burdens on children’s shoulders. And it’s beautiful that your granddaughter saw you as always happy. Kids need happy places and people in their lives!

      But the masks people wear to hide wrong behavior or to trick people? Not good at all. I’d just as soon keep away from them! But I’d love to meet you!

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  2. Good morning, Shelia. I hid behind masks for thirty years until the Lord lovingly helped me to see they were unnecessary. Today I live free and whole. Love your post with all the beautiful pictures. One day I hope to visit Italy!! ❤

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    1. I’m so glad you laid your masks down, Gail. We find much greater freedom in just being ourselves, don’t we?! Glad you enjoyed the post & pictures. If you come to Italy you MUST look us up!!

      Liked by 1 person

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