The Italian Carnival: A Venetian Tradition

Carnival season starts soon in our little town, with its historic tradition of a parade and masked public street party. But no Italian carnival celebration more is famous than that of Venice.

The word carnival literally means either farewell to meat or farewell to the flesh. The concept is, that mask firmly in place, a person is free to do whatever they want. And putting on the carnival mask, really is like leaving your own flesh behind, to take up another identity. 

Carnival has long been a big holiday here in Italy.

Dating clear back to Roman days, when it honored the Roman god Saturnalia. But it soon became known as a Christian holiday, probably because of it comes so close to lent.

Although the Catholic church had early on tried to distance itself from the celebrations, when Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) decided that the Lenten fast wouldn’t start until after Carnival. Probably because of its pagan roots, and because during carnival it’s normal to consume excess alcohol, overeat rich foods, and indulge in sex as much as possible.

But they were unable to stop people from celebrating carnival. They probably reasoned after all, that Lent was coming and they’d have to do without.

Nonetheless, the Venetian history of Carnival is even more interesting.

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. For instance, they could not gamble or play certain games.

Anymore, the Carnival and Lent seem as intertwined as grapes are with their vines. And hardly anyone questions either Carnival’s pagan roots or its raucous rowdy behavior. Most Italians in fact, love the festival. Schools usually hold masked dress up parties for the children. And many towns, large and small, have street parties and parades, with tossing of confetti and horn blowing.

The origin of the confetti, which we call coriandoli here, also have an insteresting past. Originally, instead of tossing colorful bits of paper (as in the above photo with masks) people tossed coriander seeds (coriandoli) which had been 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!

The Italian carnival also its own traditional includes sweets, like Chiacchere and Struffoli.

The part of Carnival that we love!

And in these yummy sweets called chiacchere we find an interesting name.

It means gossip or useless chitchat, and seems to stem from the fact that they’re so easy to make from only a handful of ingredients. Just like gossip, where (sadly) people manage to make up all kinds of things from very few facts, or even from none at all!

The struffoli, on the other hand, go by different names according to region. Here in Abruzzo we call them Cicerchiata, possibly because they’re often formed into a ring shape, as their name also suggests. But in my husband’s hometown, they’re known as Struffoli, from the Greek, meaning little round ball. And best of all, the honey dripped Cicerchiata are not only for Carnival, but in many areas also served at Christmas or Easter!

The struffoli are also delicious and easy to make.

Hubby and I 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 others can really trust, because they really are what they seem?

IMAGES: Masks by annca | Confetti by pixel 2013. | Strufoli by nataliaaggiato. | Chiacchiere by Clop from Wikipedia, public domain.

Published by Signora Sheila

Missionary blogger, wife, mom, nonna. Join my simple life journey of faith and missions in small town Italy!

10 thoughts on “The Italian Carnival: A Venetian Tradition

    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 get pretty raucous. In early afternoon, when it’s just the kids in their costume parade, it’s OK, but late afternoon and evening it is not a scene we want to witness or be part of! Quite depressing.

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  1. 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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