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The Language of Carnival

When we think of Carnival or Fat Tuesday, we usually think of Rio de Janeiro or New Orleans. However, just because those are two of the biggest Carnival themed parties in the world doesn’t mean they’re the only ones!

In fact, there are celebrations for the event all over the world, and they all have different names. Let’s take a look at some of them, and where they came from. Starting with:


CarnivalThe Carnival celebration in Brazil is included in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the biggest party in the world. Brazil receives 70% of their total annual visitors during this time and the country basically shuts down for an entire week. Talk about a party!

The exact meaning and origin of the word “carnival” is disputed. Some say it’s from the Late Latin expression carne vale, which means “farewell to the flesh,” signifying the carefree nature of the parties. Others say it comes from the Italian carne levare, which means “to remove meat,” signifying the fact Catholics must refrain from eating meat.

Mardi Gras

Quite possibly the second most popular Carnival themed party in the world is Mardi Gras, held in New Orleans, Louisiana. However, Mardi Gras has become the name most in the United States associate the season with, and it stretches throughout the country. The celebration is much like Carnival in Brazil, where the party goes through a whole week rather than one day.

Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday.” Since the beginning of the fasting and contrition period, Lent, starts on Ash Wednesday, the day before worshipers routinely gorge themselves on fatty and rich foods in preparation. It’s celebrated in this fashion also in Canada, Sweden, Italy and Belgium…but not France!


ApokriésIn Greece, the carnival season is known as Apokriés, or “saying goodbye to meat.” It’s a more intricate and long process than most other carnivals. It starts on “Smoke Thursday,” or Tsiknopémptẽ, when partygoers eat roast beef dinners. This is repeated the next Sunday.

The following week is known as Tyrinē, or “cheese week.” Since meat is not allowed, everyone enjoys cheese and other dairy products. Finally, it ends with “Clean Monday,” or Καθαρά Δευτέρα.


The Russian version of Carnival, Maslenitsa, not only celebrates the Christian values of the holiday but also serves as a throwback to older traditions and religions. The main ingredient of the celebration is bliny, which are delicious Russian pancakes. They are eaten as a symbol of the sun and also because they use foods that are still allowed during the holy week.

It’s not all pancakes though! Maslenitsa also includes masquerade balls, snowball fights, sledding, and sleigh rides. They even have a mascot for the celebration: a brightly dressed straw effigy of Lady Maslenitsa. On Sunday evening, the effigy is stripped of all the colors and burned in a bonfire.


FastelavnCarnival in Denmark is more akin to Halloween. It’s known as Fastelavn, which is a Low Saxon word imported from Northern Germany. There are many variations of the word in other regions. They all basically mean the same thing, “the evening before the fasting.”

In this tradition, there is all the usual fatty and rich food, including traditional sweet buns known as Fastelavnsbolle. Children dress up and go around to neighbors gathering up treats for the festival, giving the celebration its Halloween comparisons. Also, Sunday morning before Lent begins, children wake their poor parents up with fastelavnsris, which are wooden switches!