I didn’t know much about the important social function of Carnival until I experienced it myself when I moved to Patras, Greece.
Patras is the 3rd largest city in Greece. Following its liberation from the Ottomans in the 1830’s, Patras gradually became a major merchant and industrial centre. It also became most important port in the west of Greece, acting as the gateway to Italy and Western Europe. Its proximity and close communication with the Ionian islands, Italy, and France had a significant impact on the local culture and tradition. Patras carnival started as a private ball in 1829. However, a few years later, French troops stationed in Patras introduced more European carnival traditions.
Over time, the Carnival of Venice became a great influence, which was later blended with ancient Greek elements, creating a unique local carnival tradition. Gradually, the carnival of Patras grew larger, becoming one of the largest carnivals in Europe.
Carnival, Religion, and the Christian Church – How it all started
The work Carnival or Carnevale comes from the Latin language. It literally means to “remove the meat”, signifying the start of Lent in the Christian calendar. In most countries the carnival period falls between January and March and is accompanied by a variety of cultural traditions.
The birth of Carnival
In her book “Dancing in the Streets”, Barbara Ehrenreich talks in depth about the history and strong social function of Carnival across different societies and historical periods. She also explains how the evolution of Christianity in Europe led to the creation of carnival as we know it.
Although it may now seem impossible, early Christianity involved a lot of singing, dancing, drinking, and ecstatic rituals. Following previous religious traditions, such as the worship of Dionysus – the God of wine in ancient Greece – it was important for worshippers to get into a trance state and “experience” God. Their relationship with God was a deeply personal affair.
However, as Christianity became the official religion, first of the Roman, and then of the Byzantine Empire, things started changing rapidly. It was no longer for the individuals to perform rituals and access deities on their own. This was now the job of designated priests, choirs and of the official ecclesiastic authorities. Furthermore, around the late 4th century AD, dancing was banned altogether and was proclaimed the work of Devil.
Almost a thousand years later, in the late Middle Ages, worshippers and priests, would still enjoy singing, drinking, and dancing inside Catholic Churches. This was anathema for the hierarchy of the Church who wanted to introduce more discipline and control people’s enthusiasm. The compromise that they came up with was to allow this ecstatic behaviour to happen only during Church holidays and outside of churches. Unintentionally, this led to the creation of the concept of Carnival.
Social function of carnival
Of course, people always danced outside, but the prohibition from the ecclesiastical authorities led to an outburst of festive creativity. In fact, there are many anecdotes of collective dance manias during the late Middle Ages with some leading to people dying from exhaustion.
Gradually, the dance manias were institutionalised and transformed into public secularised festivals (Carnival), cutting them off completely from religion. Carnivals would happen on particular days of the year and would largely involve mass processions through the centre of towns. Carnival became a way for people of all backgrounds to escape their socioeconomic reality and become one.
The most important aspect of the Carnival was the mocking of the powerful. This acted as a pressure-relief valve for the lower classes. One man would dress up as the “King of fools” and mock the authorities. Later this expanded to wider masquerades with everyone mocking the powerful. In some cases, carnivals became the breeding ground of rebellions and revolutions, something that increasingly terrified authorities.
Later the protestant reformation led to the ban of Carnivals. People were not allowed to sing, dance or show any signs of collective excitement. This gradually led to an epidemic of melancholy across Europe. However, the carnival tradition persisted and made a comeback in the 20th century.
Today, the Rio Carnival in Brazil with its exotic dancers, costumes and samba music is the largest in the world.
Patras Carnival in Greece – A beautiful tradition
The Patras Carnival is a series of events than just a single celebration. It starts on January 17 and can last up to February or March, depending on the year. It comprises of a number of festivities, including parades, balls, games, treasure hunt, costume competitions, and activities for children.
Every year, when the carnival arrives the city literally transforms. People of all ages join carnival groups, design costumes, and take part in competitions in an outburst of creativity. The streets get decorated, the music in every bar, club and party switches to carnival classics. Everywhere there is a very positive vibe while thousands volunteer their time for the benefit of the community. Weeks of preparations, events and parties all culminate in the Grand Carnival Parade on the last Sunday of the Carnival period, just before the beginning of the Lent.
During the last weekend of the Carnival, the entire city along with tens of thousands of visitors come together to witness a huge parade of floats and local dance groups. Thousands of dancers dressed up in the craziest costumes parade through the main streets. The Grand Parade lasts the whole Sunday until late in the evening when the float of the Carnival King is burnt at the harbour followed by spectacular fireworks, marking the end of the festivities.
How the Carnival experience changed my outlook on life
I used to be quite shy and not the type of person that would be dancing in the streets. At least this is what I thought until I moved to Patras. When the carnival period came a transformation started happening, first inside me and then on the outside as well.
As everyone in the city started getting lost in the rhythm of the carnival, my inhibitions were gradually swept away, allowing myself to participate in the craziness around me. I painted my hair blue, bought a silly costume, and went out in the streets with a bottle of Mavrodaphne – a local sweet wine widely consumed during the carnival. Walking down the street for the first time dressed up in a silly costume felt really weird. I felt like I was somebody else living in a new more fun and carefree reality where nothing really mattered apart from having as much fun as possible and dance.
Over the weeks leading to the final carnival weekend and the grand parade I discovered a much more extrovert and fun version of myself. I felt more comfortable and more confident with who I was. But most importantly I was excited for discovering parts of myself I didn’t know even existed.
This was a truly liberating experience!
The social function of Carnival in Patras
The influence of the carnival in my relationship with others was also significant. I came much closer to my friends, made many new ones, and became much more sociable. I felt part of a larger community celebrating life through music, dance, and games.
The past or future didn’t matter. I was living in the moment and dancing until there was no energy left in my body. Life felt optimistic, exciting, and promising despite being just a student with no job and not much money. Everything seemed possible as I connected with others through music and dance.
Before moving to Patras to study I lived in Athens, where I grew up. Although there are some carnival festivities in parts of Athens, due to being a big capital city things get impersonal. The city is just too big to have a consistent carnival vibe or atmosphere. Perhaps this is why the most successful carnivals usually happen in smaller cities and towns, where people can join together.
I always knew about the crazy Patras Carnival but I never really realised how transformative it would be to actually be a part of it. I never realised the strong bond I would create with the people I met there and how we would all become one during the Carnival period.
The need to dance, celebrate, and connect with others
As humans, we have the natural tendency to come together and party. It makes us feel physically healthier, and mentally stronger. For centuries, Carnivals have been the best street dance parties ever. An excuse to forget our social status and dance with everyone irrespective of their background.
The unexpected religious history of carnival demonstrates the continuous struggle between expressing ourselves freely and the need of organised religion and powerful hierarchies to restrict us.
I am not sure if it is dance that creates the magical atmosphere during Carnival or whether Carnival gives us the perfect excuse to let our inhibitions go, dance and connect at a deeper level with others. Whatever the reason, the strong social function of Carnival is undisputed.