Around the world, religion and the pursuit of spiritual well-being matter. They unify us and divide us at the same time.
Every Sunday we’re going to be highlighting stories we’ve come across in our international reading and listening that get close up and personal with religion, faith and spirituality. As always, we welcome your stories too – use the comment box below or get in touch with us by email with your suggestions.
What with this Wednesday bringing the start of Lent, the period of penitence and reflection leading up to Easter, we begin this week with the Christian world.
Though most Christians mark Lent, it is most closely associated with Catholics. Nations with Catholic traditions make sure to precede the holiday by giving themselves something to atone for, known variously as Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday or Carnival.
These festivals vary by region. In Germany millions of people have been partying since last Thursday, going into the streets to watch the carnival parades and their infamous satirical floats. This year, as most of the rest of Europe is in the grip of the Euro crisis, paper mache models of Chancellor Angela Merkel will be on prominent display. As the Spiegel reports, “in Düsseldorf, the chancellor will be shown as the engine driver of a “Europe Express” train, several of whose carriages are ablaze. In Mainz, she will be in charge of “Angie’s Umbrella Shop,” handing out umbrellas to half of Europe, with the desperate Greeks, Spanish and Portuguese waiting in line.”
In France the carnival celebrations in the Mediterranean city of Nice are known for their flower covered floats. In the northern, rainier part of the country, however, everyone gets in on the act. ” This is not a carnival to watch,” writes Thirza Vallois in France Today, ” but to be part of—on fait carnaval, or one does carnival, as the expression goes—and it’s a genuine experience of solidarity and friendship for those taking part, les carnavaleux.”
In Venice carnival is a whirlwind of costume parties, in Moscow an opportunity to attract more tourists and in Poland, it means eating paczki or doughnuts on “Fat Thursday” (February 16) — to be precise, 100 million of them (or 2 and a half per Pole). In Istanbul 2012 will mark the third time Greeks have come to celebrate carnival in what was, until the 1940s, a Greek neighborhood of the city.
Here, thanks to the Stars and Stripes, “U.S. military’s independent news source” is a look at the variety of European pre-Lenten festivals.
See the Flight of the Angel at this year’s Carnevale di Venice:
Perhaps the most famous Carnival in the world is in Rio de Janeiro, where millions throng the streets in brightly colored (if often scanty) costumes. Here a Filipino reminisces about the hedonism of Rio’s Carnival.
These festivals of indulgence screech to a halt Tuesday night in most places (Switzerland’s Fasnacht is an exception). Then it’s time to repent, or to go fallow. Fasting was an important part of early Lenten practices, though over time it’s become more common for people to give up a kind of food. The Financial Times, normally a source of information about markets, not morals, had one London chef’s column on his own mealtime plans for Lent.
This year, eco-fasting (less meat, less driving, shorter showers), is being encouraged in places like Finland. In the Philippines, some papers printed Lenten homilies, and Catholics in Manila were reminded to bring in palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday services. The palms will be burned and used for ashes on Ash Wednesday.
The spectacle of pre-Lenten festivals makes them more fun than Lent itself, like Dante’s Inferno as opposed to the Paradiso. But one columnist in Trinidad urged his countrymen not to forget the reason why Carnival happens:
“Without the ‘rituals'”, he writes, “the entire festival will collapse. Someone somewhere has to believe.”