The Italian Carnival: A Venetian Tradition

Carnival season starts today in our little town, with its historic tradition of a parade and masked public street party. But no Italian carnival celebration more is famous than that of Venice.

The word carnival literally means either farewell to meat or farewell to the flesh. The concept is, that mask firmly in place, a person is free to do whatever they want. And putting on the carnival mask, really is like leaving your own flesh behind, to take up another identity. 

It’s long been a big holiday here in Italy, dating clear back to Roman days, when it honored the Roman god Saturnalia. But soon became known as a Christian holiday, probably because of its relation to lent. Even though the Catholic church early on tried to distance itself from the celebrations, when Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) decided that the Lenten fast wouldn’t start until after Carnival.

Probably because of its pagan roots, and because it’s normal to consume excess alcohol, overeat rich foods, and indulge in sex as much as possible. After all, Lent is coming when they’ll have to do without.

Nonetheless, the Venetian history of Carnival is even more interesting.

Although interestingly, the Venetians didn’t limit mask-wearing only to Carnival. Although no one seems to know just how or why the custom started, wearing masks in public was quite common. Mask makers, in fact, were given a special place in society. Their artetian guilds even had their own laws.

And not only. The city also had laws regulating what masked people could and could not do. For instance, they could not gamble or play certain games.

But anymore, the Carnival and Lent seem as intertwined as grapes are with their vines. And hardly anyone any longer questions either Carnival’s pagan roots or its raucous and rowdy behavior. Most Italians in fact, love the festival. Schools usually hold masked dress up parties for the children. Towns, both big and small, have street parties and parades. And two things are never lacking.

The tossing of confetti, which here we call coriandoli. 

The origin of these colorful paper bits (as in the above photo with masks) also makes for an interesting story. Originally, people tossed coriander seeds (coriandoli) which had been glued to thin layers of plaster. When paper became more common, it gradually replaced the seeds. But by then the name coriandoli had already stuck!

And the one part of Carnival that we also love: the Chiacchiere and the Struffoli or Cicerchiata.

And in the chiacchiere we find another interesting name. The word means gossip or useless chitchat. This odd name for these sweets seems to stem from the fact that they’re so easy to make from only a handful of ingredients. Just like gossip, where people manage to make up all kinds of things from very few facts, or even from none at all!

The struffoli, on the other hand, go by different names according to region. Here in Abruzzo we call them Cicerchiata, possibly because they’re often formed into a ring shape, as their name also suggests. But in my husband’s hometown, they’re known as Struffoli, from the Greek, meaning little round ball.

They’re delicious and easy to make. And best of all, the honey dripped Cicerchiata are not only for Carnival, but in many areas also served at Christmas or Easter!

Hubby and I don’t celebrate Carnival. The whole idea of hiding behind a mask just to do whatever you want seems rather deceitful to us. We’d rather deal with real people. Maskless, because we like knowing upfront who we’re dealing with. What you see is what you get.

We’ve known masked people through the years. And trust me, they weren’t the Zorro type, trying to do good. They proved false friends, people who, in the end stabbed us in the back. So the thought I’d like to leave with you is this.

Do you hide behind masks? Or are you a real person?

The kind people can really trust, because what they see really is what they get?

Images – 1. Masks: annca, | 2. Struffoli: nataliaaggiato, | 3. Chiacchiere: Di Clop – Opera propria, in Public dominion.

15 thoughts on “The Italian Carnival: A Venetian Tradition

    • We didn’t know most of it either Dayle until moving over here. It’s quite a debated item among the Christian community. Although I would say that most of the younger believers don’t even consider not participating. This seems very sad to me. Glad you found the article helpful!


    • For sure Lynn! Italy, as most Catholic nations, are pretty big on celebrating it. When they have the celebration here in our town, things can be pretty raucous. In early afternoon, when it’s just the kids in their costume parade, it’s not too bad, but late afternoon and evening it is not a scene we want to witness or be part of! Quite depressing.


  1. Thank you for explaining Carnival and its roots, of which I was blissfully unaware. Happy to hear you don’t celebrate it. Knowing its origins, I wouldn’t either. I treasure authenticity. Jesus is our model for living authentic lives.


    • I didn’t know much about Carnival either before moving here Kathryne. A good portion of Christians don’t celebrate it, so we asked why and soon understood. The only good part for us are those yummy sweets, which Mario can’t pass up buying at the bakery. He grew up with them!


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