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Carnival! Mardi Gras! Fašank! Masopust! Its History and its Czech&Slovak Rendering

Never skip an opportunity to be happy! Put on a costume, it helps unlock your free spirit to play it up, dance it up, and laugh it up, it eases one's sorrow and helps drag a lonely soul into the circle of fun.

If you walked into a hall in Hillcrest area of San Diego, you may think you are in the heart of Europe! You would want to leap to the dance floor or into the arms of one of the many gorgeous costumed women or handsome men. We ate homemade delicious hearty food, we danced, we drank and laughed, we sang traditional carnival songs, and we inacted a burial of a double base as a symbol of joy, had a hard theatrical cry over it, and danced some more.

What is this all about?

It is a celebration known as carnival aka mardi gras (French), fašangy (Slovak) or (Czech) karneval, masopust! The carnival is giving a good bye to the joy of full tables, parties, drinks, music and mainly meat prior a long fast. (Carne - meat; levare - put away, from Latin, in Czech masopust - půst od masa).

People get together in fun costumes, eat delicious homemade fatty food, drink slivovitz and wine, indulge in sweets, but mainly in a wonderful night-long singing & dancing. An important part of the evening is a hilarious mini play consisted of a procession of masks that bursts into a song after a song celebrating love and good life while, with an exaggerated crying and lamenting, a musical instrument is buried for 40 days, the fun, the music, the dancing is metaphorically gone!

What is the significance of it?

The wild party, or parties, lead to a beginning of a 40-day long fasting that ends on Easter. The fasting period is called Great Lent, derived from the word lengthen, as the days of this time of the year are lengthening. (It is called quadragesima, meaning 40, in liturgical Latin that you may hear in the church.)

Why fasting? Fasting was from the beginning of our history present as a mean of physical cleansing; a penance, a way to widen our humility, self-control, appreciation and spirituality undisturbed by the indulgement of food and drinks. Fasting was inspired by Jesus as, according to Matthew (Matthew 4:2), he fasted 40 days in desert before his public ministry.

Why does fasting last forty day?

Number forty reoccurs in the Bible several times: 40 days of flood, Moses fasted 40 days and nights while on Mount Sinai, then he and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years until they entered the Promised Land. (Exodus 16:35), balming of Jacob lasts 40 days (Genesis 50:3), the Ninevites fast 40 days to escape God's wrath (Jonah 3:4), the Prophet Ezekiel lay on his right side for 40 days prior to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, the Prophet Elijah fasted and prayed for 40 days on Mount Horeb, etc. Taking in consideration this numerical symbolism, the Council of Nicaea in 325, a religious convention, decided and prescribed that fasting will be always conducted for 40 days. (The fasting up to that time varied in number of days.)

The first day of fasting starts on Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, a day prior the Easter Sunday. It counts actually not 40 days but 47 days as we break the fast on Sundays to honor Chris' resurrection that happened on Sunday. It was Pope Gregory (540 - 604) who named that first fasting day Ash Wednesday, as he would make a mark with ash on your forehead to remind you "You are dust and to dust you will return".

A mask dance and celebrations are scattered between January 6, the Day of Three Kings, and Ash Wednesday, but the last six days prior the Ash Wednesday is when things are traditionally celebrated with the biggest vigor. It all starts on Thursday, six days prior the Ash Wednesday, called Fat Thursday. We call that day a Fat day because we eat all what makes us fat! Much of the celebration is going on over the weekend, but the biggest day offering the most elaborate and wildest parties and parades with unique masks and costumes is another 'fat” day, Fat Tuesday also known as Mardi Gras, the very last day before the fasting will start...You eat as much meat as you can to get enough of it so you can sweetly remember your feast for the next forty days!

Life is beautiful if we know how to make it eventful. It is beautiful to allow our time to be to permeated with special days revealing the beauty of tradition, beauty of life's cycle, beauty of our roots and beauty of connections with each other in the swirled of dance. It takes an effort to make it happen, but it leaves you rewarded and invigorated.

In the advent of the virtual world, it is easy to get lost in it, especially our offspring. I appreciate and celebrate the fact that I have friends who want to stay embedded in some of the meaningful old fashion ways and traditions. We, especially Czechs, may be more secular than religious ,yet we love the history of the traditions to make our life even more colorful.


Thanks to those who do not have many glamorous photographs as they worked hard and selflessly behind the scenes: Jana Fišerová, Jarka a Petr Oujeský, Marienka a Ferko

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