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Posted by on Feb 4, 2008

Mardi Gras / Carnaval – A Non-Moveable Feast?

Mardi Gras / Carnaval – A Non-Moveable Feast?


Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, has often been a raucous holiday throughout the Catholic world. In New Orleans we have “Fat Tuesday” – literally Mardi Gras. In Rio de Janeiro and Venice, the day before the beginning of the Lenten season of preparation for the Easter Triduum is called Carnival, or Carnaval in Portuguese.

The Carnival celebration in Rio de Janeiro has become a major part of the economy, due to the tourist trade and large expenditures for floats, constumes, and neighborhood performance groups. Although the celebration was only introduced in 1845 by European elites imitating the Parisian celebration, Carnival has taken on a life of its own and has incorporated African and Amerindian elements. In 2008, Carnival will attract 700,000 tourists and $510 million dollars. Like New Orleans, the party can start a whole week before the actual day of Carnival.

Of course there are always problems with success. The key one for Mardi Gras is that the date is 50 days before Easter. This means that the actual date of Carnival floats in relation to the date of Easter, following the lunar calendar. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring. For Brazil, Carnival marks the end of the southern hemisphere’s summer vacation season. If Carnival comes too early, as it does this year, on February 5, the vacation and tourist trade can dry up. In fact, the date of Carnival can range from February 3 to March 9 – a span of 5 weeks.

The big problem is that when Carnival is over, the party is over. Lent begins with its fasting, penance, and almsgiving. Big parties are not in keeping with the season. The hotel and tourism industry in Brazil are concerned that this will mean a huge economic loss. The “summer” economic season would end 7 weeks early. There is a movement in Brazil to make Carnival the first Sunday of March to avoid these economic dislocations. The Secretary General of the Brazil’s Catholic Conference of Bishops, Dom Dimas Lara Barbosa, is not opposed in principal to moving the date to January so that the festival will not occur during Lent.

January seems a little to close to Christmas and New Years and so there has been some thought of turning Carnival into a purely secular festival. But then again, it wouldn’t be Carnival if it were. On the other hand, many of our Protestant cousins would probably remind us that Carnival seems to have gone beyond any deep religious significance anyway.

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