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Carnival, Mardi Gras and Hispanic Culture

Carnival is celebrated through out Latin America in preparing for the Lenten season. Hispanic Culture with its strong Catholic influences has many different versions of this celebration due to the many different nationalities. Carnival is the predecessor of the Mardi Gras celebration that takes place through out the French culture. Though Carnival is celebrated all over the world, the most famous Carnival celebrations take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Its sister acelebration Mardi Gras is almost synonymous with New Orleans and is equally renowned through out the world. Many people travel from all over the world to partake in the festivities, which take place all over the country of Brazil and the state of Louisiana. However, what are the origins of Carnival and Mardi Gras? Are they Hispanic or French in heritage? Well, the answer might surprise you. It is a little bit of both and a little bit of neither. This article will take you to a far removed culture, which via the religion of Catholicism influenced these two cultures with their most commonly known holidays. The season approaching Lent is time for Carnival.

The origins of Carnival are not sure, but there are some strong theories of where the festival has its roots. The same is true of Mardi Gras, which is celebrated for a week leading up to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Carnival the word itself comes from Latin carnem (meat) + levare (lighten or raise), literally "to remove the meat" or "stop eating meat". The most common theory of where Carnival began states that it hails from Italy. It might also come from the terms Caro (meat) and vale (farewell or to go) meaning farewell to meat. The earliest term that is closely related in both meaning and manner is carrus navalis, which was some kind of Greek cart carrying a statue of a god in a religious procession at the annual festivities in honor of the god Apollo. If you think closely of the way in which we celebrate Carnival all over the world I think it is clearly seen that indeed this is another adaptation of previously celebrated ceremonies, which were adapted or incorporated into the Catholic religion. As with many of the religions where the converts were not removed from their homeland, many of the standing traditions and celebrations were adapted for use in the Catholic religion to help ease the acceptance of the newly introduced faith by the missionaries or by the leaders who were converted as is the case in Roman and Grecian areas. This is also found in the Hispanic American areas as we have maintained many of our previous religious practices and the Catholic Church accommodates these festivals and holidays.

So, is the original celebration Mardi Gras or Carnival. The answer would seem to be that neither was the original celebration but one that reached past the establishment of the Catholic Church into the past religions of Roman and Grecian days when the god Apollo was worshiped. As the holiday was timely with the approaching of the Lenten holiday, which is the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, it was made over with adaptations to accommodate the purpose of the Catholic Church to ease the region into the acceptance of a new religion.

So how did it come to be celebrated through out Latin America as well as some sporadic areas such as Louisiana? As the Catholic religion began it’s assertive spread through out the European world beginning in October 28, 312 AD when the Emperor Constantine fought under the symbol of Christ, the cross, as he stated he received a vision and won. Consequently, he was converted though not baptized until right before his death. In 313AD following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, the Edict of Milan declares the Roman Empire neutral towards religious views, in effect ending the persecution of Christians. The succeeding years led to the Church gaining power both politically and financially resulting in many crusades through out the Middle East, Spain and Central Europe.

As the Europeans explored and came to the Americas, they brought with them the blood shed and forceful conversion of inhabitants to the catholic religion under the term of inquisition, sanctioned by the Catholic Church, ordered by the Spanish Hierarchy. The Inquisitions and consequential Autos de fe also took place in Mexico, Brazil and Peru with contemporary historians of the Conquistadors such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo recorded them. The Spanish Inquisition was founded in 1478 in Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile. It was largely under the control of the Spanish monarch, with only the Inquisitor General appointed by Rome. It is the same Isabella who is credited for contracting Christopher Columbus for exploring a shorter route to India subsequently resulting in the “discovery” of the Americas.

With the spread of Catholicism was also spread the festivals adopted into the religion such as Carnival. A little known fact about Louisiana is that the first European explorers to visit Louisiana, which came in 1528, were in fact a Spanish expedition (led by Panfilo de Narváez) located the mouth of the Mississippi River. In 1541 Hernando de Soto's expedition crossed the region. Then Spanish interest in Louisiana lay dormant. In the late 17th Century, French expeditions, which included sovereign, religious and commercial aims, established a foothold on the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast. With its first settlements, France laid claim to a vast region of North America, and set out to establish a commercial empire and French nation stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. With the first explorers begin from Spain, Spaniards settling into the area and the tying in of Louisiana to Mexico, many of the festivities though in execution are unique share the same foundation and have a strong Hispanic influence. Is it no wonder then that the only region in the United States to celebrate the Carnival season so similar to that celebrated through out Latin America would be the areas, which had and still have strong ties to Latin America?

No other part of the world so embraces this time of year as do Hispanic Americans and Cajuns. With the ethnic flavors of the regions, each Carnival festival takes on a personality of its own, though the beginnings were the same. Maybe on some level we Hispanics are showing our disdain and rebellion for a religion fostered onto us with force and aggression. Maybe our passion has a moment when we can revel and release that which always lies dormant within us. Moreover, isn’t that true of Acadians too? In preparation for a time of fasting and Lent, in a new marriage of old world religion and Catholic faith, the good people of these areas go to the streets celebrating life and joy before a time of penance. Such is life in the Bayou and South of the Boarder. Enjoy life today because tomorrow brings many sorrows.

Is it Mardi Gras? Is it Carnival? In the Americas it is neither and both because both are Criollo or Creole. It seems to have a hint of paganism, accommodated by Catholicism, in which everyone in the church enjoys a moment of freedom.

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