Carnival – Christian festival gone rogue?

By Norma Tsopo
HARARE – Carnivals are pretty sensual affairs – very earthy by even by conservative Christian standards, and unquestionably evil in the views of religious fundamentalists.
It was with shock that on looking at the origins of the world famous Rio de Janeiro Carnival, after which many are being woven across the world, there are such strong Christian ties.

Rio Carnival dancers in 1998
Carnival costumes currently bear no bearing to the event’s Christian origins

In fact, it is unimaginable that without Easter and the Catholic religion’s season of Lent during which meat consumption is prohibited carnival would not have found light of day.
The week-long festival was originally celebrated as a precursor to the Christian festival that preludes Easter festivities in the catholic country.
This was an event that was decidedly meant to be sensual as a farewell to earthly pleasures in preparation for sensual fasting that the Catholic Church proscribes for its adherents in preparation for Easter celebrations.
Consumption of meat is prohibited during Lent.
Carnival is derived from the Portuguese word “carneval” which comes from Italian and translates to the phrase “to put away the meat.”
St Peters Basilica Dome Vatican City in Rome: The catholic faith does not appear to have any influence on the carnival anymore

In Italy, Carnevale was celebrated with a costume contest, and as this tradition grew, it made its way over to many other Catholic countries in Europe, including Portugal.
The costume parade has largely become the face of the Carnival.
And with the costume becoming skimpier over time its religious roots are increasingly coming into question especially in a conservative country like Zimbabwe where Brazilians have of late been invited to perform in a local carnival.
The metamorphosis of a religious festival into a wild sensual parade just like most festivals the world over took time and was gradual.
Even the costumes moved from extravagance to skimpy although complete nudity is still shunned as an unacceptable excess.
The carnival was taken to Brazil by its Portuguese colonialists in the 17th century. Then, Portuguese socialists would dress up in masks and costumes and then parade through town while the commoners watched.
640px-Lingelbach_Karneval_in_Rom_001c Carnival in Rome circa 1650
An illustration of a 1950s carnival costume parade

Costumes from this time until the 1930s were very elaborate and were often a way to demonstrate wealth.
With masks being a part of the costumes people began to push the boundaries as being masquerades brought with it a sense of freedom and mystery.
640px-Games_during_the_carnival_at_Rio_de_Janeiro circa 1822
Illustration of games during a 1822 Rio de Janeiro carnival

The costs of being part of a carnival parade was also too exorbitant for the ordinary person which however began to change in the 1930s.
Because of the need to bring down the cost of the costumes to accommodate the ordinary folk and Brazil’s sweltering February heat the usually heavy costumes began to be tinkered with for both comfort and affordability.
Costume making businesses began to thrive.
To aid the revolution in carnival costumes were the costume contests that were running parallel to the main parade and costume contest. There were many other side shows and costume contests in hotels, clubs, theatres and other public facilities in Brazil during this transitional period.
Men started attending the shows in drag outfits.
Men in drag in 1930s carnival
Men in drag outfits in the 1930s carnival

Over time, the costumes took a sexy and more revealing turn with bikinis becoming the norm. Men also began to go shirtless.
But fashion trends had taken over to influence the costumes with today’s highly sexualized perceptions of beauty swaying the scales in what beautiful costumes should be like.

They are now more of feathers and beads than anything else. And it appears completely lost to its Christian foundations.
Two samba dancers perform 09 February 1994 during
By 1994 some carnival costumes were pushing the boundaries. Picture by VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Zimbabwe is copying the carnival concept albeit as a highly secular and deeply commercialized event. There is as yet no cultural or religious connections.
Beyond its tourism value, the local carnival would die a natural death. It’s still only owned by its organisers – Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) and even then only at the mercy of government financing.
If it succeeds in being integrated into the local annual cultural festivities it will need to strengthen its ties with things Zimbabwean.