It's carnival time!

27.February 2022

It's carnival time!

When clown artists dress up, apply make-up, change their names and voices when becoming the character of a healthcare clown, they do things similar to the rest of us, around the time of carnival or Fasching, as it is known in Austria. 

Giora Seeliger, founder of RED NOSES, explains the meaning of carnival. copyright: Mirjam Reither

The tradition of carnival, a joyful and extravagant celebration before the Christian liturgical season of Lent, dates back to the Middle Ages.

Older festivities of the same sort were the Dionysian feasts of the ancient Greeks, the Roman Bacchanalia and the Calvarien festivals of the early Christian Middle Ages.

While the Christian lent still known today is marked by fasting and sacrifice, such as traditionally giving up meat, dairy and sugar for the 40 days the Bible mentions Jesus fasting and renouncing in the desert, the days of carnival are everything but renunciation.

People enjoy the sensuous pleasures of food, drink, celebration and sexuality as much as their hearts and bodies desire and they celebrate the occasion by dressing flamboyantly.

Think of the elegant costumes and masks at the Venetian carnival or the teasing and glorious skin-showing costumes of the samba dance schools across the carnival of Rio de Janeiro.

But what is the meaning behind this magnificent feast for the senses?

Most likely, the Christian carnival traditions as we know them today, originating in the 13th century, have pagan roots concerning the nearing end of winter and are a rite of transition from the coldest and darkest season of the year to spring, its promise of renewed life and light.

The communal feasting is believed to stem from the last preserves of the harvest that would soon go bad and would need to be finished, to not let precious resources go to waste and to give the community proper nourishment until the fruits of spring were ready to be reaped.

Loud celebrations and masquerade are also reminiscent of pagan rituals to drive out the spirits of winter in order for spring and summer being able to return. The prevalence of violent conflict in the past was a reason for this transition rite, too, as large parts of the male population left their communities in spring to go to war as mercenaries, leaving their home in the hands of the women, children and elderly. In the German carnival, this historical remnant is preserved with the traditional handing-over of the city keys to the fools.

From a psychological perspective, however, carnival fulfilled the important social function of collective excess and neglect of the usual social norms. In earlier societies that were much more dominated by the life-long social role one was largely born into, it was only during the time of carnival that authorities could be made fun of, and social roles were reversed, if only for the day.

People put on costumes, wore masks to go incognito and made jokes on the cost of the ruling class, which were only tolerated since this mockery and expression of frustration would guarantee the subjects’ obedience to the governing elite for the rest of the year.

As opposed to the normally strict rules of mourning, particularly for women, death and dying were portrayed gleefully during carnival, men and women stepped out of their respective gender roles and into the opposite, or something in between.

Although carnival is a time of exuberance, the line between excess and it turning into belligerence and assault is a thin one. Especially for women and minorities, large festivals also present potential danger.

Today many societies are less rigid and personal freedom is greater than in most times of the past, social inequalities, however, still exist but are less visible during the communal party that is carnival. Music, dance, costume, play and humour have an equalizing force: they bring people across the social strata together, make connection against all odds possible.

Games of make-believe and pretend, such as costumes are, allow us to bring to the surface other parts of ourselves, the bolder, louder, more eccentric but also perhaps the more shy and gentle ones. Life and work demand discipline, reliability and accountability as well as sacrifice, for most people, and these are important virtues.

But carnival reminds us that a collective letting go, the experience of ecstasy, freedom and joy ought to be part of the human experience just as well. Every now and then, particularly following a harsh winter, we can let go of our responsible self and be wild, gleeful and unruly. Even just for the day.


Giora Seeliger
Artistic director of RED NOSES group