carnival (kär´ne-vel) noun
1.   A festival marked by merrymaking and feasting just before Lent.
2.   A traveling amusement show...
3.   A festival or revel: winter carnival.

[Italian carnevale, from Old Italian carnelevare, Shrovetide: carne, meat (from Latin caro, carn-) + levare, to remove (from Latin levâre, to raise).]*

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What are the peculiar traits of the comic rituals and spectacles of the Middle Ages? Of course, these are not religious rituals like, for instance, the Christian liturgy to which they are linked by distant genetic ties. The basis of laughter which gives form to carnival rituals frees them completely from all religious and ecclesiastic dogmatism, from all mysticism and piety. They are also completely deprived of the character of magic and prayer; they do not command nor do they ask for anything. Even more, certain carnival forms parody the Church's cult. All these forms are systematically placed outside the Church and religiosity. They belong to an entirely different sphere.

Because of their obvious sensuous character and their strong element of play, carnival images closely resemble certain artistic forms, namely the spectacle. In turn, medieval spectacles often tended toward carnival folk culture, the culture of the marketplace, and to a certain extent became one of its components. But the basic carnival nucleus of this culture is by no means a purely artistic form nor a spectacle and does not, generally speaking, belong to the sphere of art. It belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play.

In fact, carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its own laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom.

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Rabelais and His World
Mikhail Bakhtin, translated by Helene Iswolsky
Indiana University Press, 1984 (page 7).

* The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition.
Copyright 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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