The Abbot of Unreason at Mardis Gras

Lent has begun. The last big blow out has been enjoyed. In Brazil, Germany and many other countries, they have their carnivals, in New Orleans it’s Mardi Gras, in Australia it’s the Sydney LGBTI Mardis Gras, albeit a little late, and in Britain …. its pancakes.Perhaps Britain is so restrained because of it’s Protestant history and the historical rejection of any official recognition of Catholic practices.

But how Catholic is Carnival really?

Whilst the timing may reflect the Catholic calendar, the practice of carnival is much wider and older than Christianity.

In Roman times the festival of Saturnalia was the most popular, and with good reason. Whilst popular culture may present the Romans as debauched and lacking in morals it was, in reality a very structured and stratified society.

During the festival of Saturnalia all of that structure was put to one side. Seneca complained that “the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures”. Gambling, drinking and the wearing of colorful clothes in public was acceptable. Slaves were allowed to participate and a Lord of Misrule was selected within families.

In medieval England there was a Lord of Misrule and in Scotland there was an Abbot of Unreason. These figures presided over Christmas festivities which fell in line with the original Saturnalia and involved much drink and partying. After a long period of Puritanism, Christmas in Britain does seem to have largely returned to being the festival of unreason. It might be pancakes at Lent, but the Christmas party season more than makes up that apparent reserve.

So what does it all mean? Is it a pagan festival disguised as Christianity? Perhaps, but then again perhaps it is just an aspect of human nature projected into culture. Every society has rules and regulations. Some are more conservative than others but all societies ask for some level of suppression of personal desire. Carnival allows that unnatural but necessary control to be forgotten temporarily.

The spirit of Carnival is all around us. It is the weekend blowout and it is the sneaking admiration for criminals that live outside the normal rules of society. It is the crime movie with a bad guy who is the most attractive character of the film. It is the comedian who can invert meaning in unexpected ways. 

We all benefit from the existence of rules and reason, but within us all is the Abbot of Unreason waiting to be let out for the day.

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