25 February 2020

Word of the Day: Carnival.

The word comes from the Latin 'Carne' and 'Vale'- literally 'Farewell to meat.'

The word comes down to us from the Middle Ages at least. On this day, the day before the beginning of Lent, the people would say their farewell to meat and prepare to go meatless for forty days. Contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages were far from drab and dour. The people of the time knew how to throw a blow out, and this was one of the big ones. They would have meat parades, where people dressed up as their favourite meat, or even in their favourite meat, and they would have a feast where they would eat all their meat. It had a practical purpose, as the meat would not last the forty days without going rancid and therefore had to be eaten, but why not make it a party and have some fun?

The closest modern analog that I've experienced was the 2003 blackout. Several of my neighbours pulled out their barbecues that evening and began roasting everything in their freezer. As one of my neighbours said to me, pointing to his belly, "The only place my meat's going bad is right here!"

So this began a period of fasting and abstinence. The two have somehow become conflated in several cultures, and many have come to believe that if they are abstaining from meat, they are fasting. For example, Christmas Eve is a day of fasting and abstinence, where the only flesh allowed is fish. The Italians have therefore evolved a multicourse fish dinner for the occasion. Their tables fairly groan under the weight of the dinner. It is heaven on earth if you like fish, but it has nothing to do with fasting.

It doesn't help that the Church's rules on fasting are rather complicated. The Church's rules on everything are rather complicated and confusing, in part because they don't use the same assumption as most peoples from western and northern Europe use. For us, the law is the law is the law. Our tradition is to make as few laws as possible, and then enforce them even when it makes no sense. The Church is formed in a largely Mediterranean culture, where the tradition is to make as many laws as possible, then interpret them as loosely as possible, so they seldom need to be enforced. The law becomes more suggestions than hard and fast rules. If you need a practical example, consider how the average North American driver will stop at a stop sign in the middle of the Mojave desert, despite the fact that they are literally the only car within twenty miles of that spot, and compare it to Italian driving in general.

And so it is with the rules of fasting as well. I have an old book of my father's, given to him for first communion many decades ago. It states the rule that all are bound to observe the days of fasting. Then it lists the exceptions. So, no fasting if you are too young. Or too old. Or infirm. Or Pregnant. Or a member of the labouring class (back then labour meant back breaking labour at crap pay, so eat what you can when you can). Or if you were traveling. And so on.

There was one other odd exception to this rule, applying to natives of South America. In the early days of exploration, missionaries reported back tot he Pope that the indigenous tribes of this area were very fond of eating this odd animal that spent most of its time in the water and had scales on its feet and tail, though fur elsewhere. They realized they would have trouble making converts if they told these people that they could not eat this animal for forty days at a time, and therefore they asked the pope to declare it to be a fish, which he did. Later missionaries included some who were trained in the biological sciences, and they quickly realized this animal had been miscategorized. The critter in question was actually the Capybara, the world's largest extant rodent- the same family as the rat and the mouse. These missionaries sent back to pope the news that the 'fish' was actually a giant water rat. The Pope listened to the description and pronounced 'I think eating such an animal is penance enough,' and let the beast onto the list of exceptions.

And so, farewell to meat, unless you are exempt by your age, job, health, movement, or a native of South America! And have a good day.

1 comment:

Kathleen1031 said...

As always, interesting! Haven't we just lost so much in Catholic culture. It's heartbreaking to consider, and all mainly because the men who run our church don't actually like Catholicism. It's also our fault, because our ancestors fell out of love with the faith somewhere along the way. How few in America actually have retained the Catholic culture in their families? I know we have not in my family. Irish Catholic on one side, my grandfather born there, not a bit of Irish anything floated down to us. But these beautiful traditions, if I had a young family now, I would incorporate them. It would feel weird at first, but children love tradition. Oh for a while they may roll their eyes, but they'll bring their friends home and be proud of those traditions later! It gives them a sense of belonging, history, and something they can count on. I figured this out too late.
Have a blessed Lent. :)