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Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras and Lent


Today is Shrove Tuesday, a day in which many people around the world prepare for Lent, which starts tomorrow. Traditionally a period during which people would fast, Lent was a sober time when people made a particular effort to be pious and repent for their sins. 

On Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Mardi Gras or ‘Fat Tuesday’, people would eat up all the rich foods in their cupboards, such as meat, dairy, fat and sugar, in preparation for a much leaner diet over the next 40 days and nights. Here in the UK, we still eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and in many other European countries, people also enjoy sugary, fatty treats at this time of year. Particularly famous are the bugnes of France and the chiacchiere of Italy, both of which are made of fried dough. In some countries, carnivals are also held during the period preceding Lent. 

Whilst Shrove Tuesday is observed by many Christian groups, Carnival tends to be celebrated by areas in which Roman Catholicism has historically been dominant, such as France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and some areas of Germany. There is much debate over the origins of the word ‘carnival’, but it has been suggested that it refers to the exclusion of meat from people’s diets during the period of Lent. Carnival has historically been a time for entertainment and parties, with many celebrations actually reflecting pre-Christian traditions, such as the Roman festival of Saturnalia. 

Most carnivals involve extravagantly-decorated floats, which are paraded through the city accompanied by musicians and dancers, creating a real party atmosphere. But many also have particular customs, such as the famous Venetian masks or Nice’s Flower Parades. 

For many, the highlight of Carnival season is Shrove Tuesday, but in Germany the day before, Rosenmontag, takes centre stage. The Rhineland is where you will find most Karneval celebrations and in cities such as Cologne and Düsseldorf you can expect to see huge floats poking fun at politicians and other public figures, as well as current events. This year has seen an abundance of floats based on events in the Ukraine and the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this year. 

Carnival Vocabulary – French, German, Italian and Spanish

  French German Italian Spanish
Float Le Char Der Festwagen Il carro allegorico  La carroza 
Mask Le Masque Die Karnevalmaske  Il maschera  La máscara
Carnival Costume Le déguisement Das Kostüm Il costume El disfraz
Shrove Tuesday Mardi Gras Der Fastnachtdienstag Martedí Grasso Martes de carnaval
Lent Le Carême Die Fastenzeit La quaresima La Cuaresma
Parade Le défilé du carnaval Der Karnevalsumzug La sfilata di carnevale El desfile de Carneval
Carnival Le carnaval Der Karneval/ Fasnacht Il carnevale El Carnaval


Have you experienced the celebrations in another country? What did you most enjoy about the experience? What did you learn about the culture? Leave us a comment below!

Taking your group to visit a country during special celebrations such as Carnival allows them a unique insight into the culture and provides them with many opportunities to practise speaking the language with locals - our Christmas Market tours are always popular amongst our groups for this very reason. Contact us now to find out how one of our tailor-made school tours can introduce your students to a new culture and inspire a love of the language that will remain with them. 

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