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Carnevale in Venice

Venice, Italy

The Easter season begins with Lent, a time of abstinence and piety. But first, it’s time to party. In Venice, that means fabulous costumes, balls where anything goes, and masks — because during Carnevale, what happens in Venice, stays in Venice.

Complete Video Script

While Christians have celebrated Easter since ancient times, the festival itself actually has pre-Christian roots. It’s no coincidence that it happens at the start of spring. Like Christmas replaced the Pagan festival of Saturn in the dead of winter, Easter likely replaced the celebration of Eostre, a pagan goddess of spring. It was a time of renewal, birth, and fertility.

Imagine the bleakness of winter in ancient and medieval times. The despair, the short days and long nights. Barren fields, the hunger and the cold. Imagine the need for a promise that summer will return, and the joy when finally the fields spring to life and once again bear fruit. Imagine, also, the comfort in knowing that God or the gods had not abandoned you and your family. Rituals, whether Christian or Pagan, gave people hope, reminding them that the darkness of winter is always followed by life-giving spring.

The church wisely adapted the Pagan seasonal calendar to fit the story it wanted to tell. It re-branded this winter season of scarcity as the time of purification for Christians and called it Lent but before the deprivation of Lent, there was a rowdy period of anything goes. This hedonistic fling is Carnevale.

Perhaps the most famous European carnival festivals are in Venice. Venice in the quiet of winter lives up to its early name, "La Serenissima," the Serene Republic. Visitors at this time of year bundle up and enjoy the city’s chilly embrace. Each winter, Carnevale casts a spell on Venetians and visitors alike. Following a tradition that originated in the 13th century, the city slips behind a mask of anonymity as Venetians promenade, pose and pretend they’re someone they’re not. Authority is challenged. Rules are broken. The goal, to indulge in everything that’ll be forbidden in Lent.

An elegant disguise as both transformative and liberating, but it’s the mask so symbolic of this enigmatic city which feels like a cloak of invisibility. While the original 13th-century masks had symbolic functions, today’s costumes are more fanciful. While they all give a nod to tradition many are more contemporary and colorful. Though the masks may have changed, the pleasurable appeal of anonymity has not. As dusk falls, the back streets come alive with strangers. Now as then, decadence rules the night.

Like going anywhere else in Venice, getting to a Carnevale party often involves a vaporetto ride. Walking through narrow streets and crossing over canals on bridges. These Venetians have been gathering together to enjoy Carnevale for 25 years and just as generations of Venetians have for hundreds of years, they enjoy the privacy and comfort of an elegant palazzo. It’s a time when friends take a break from the stresses of their composed controlled lives to let a little fun and fantasy take over. In another palazzo off the Grand Canal, guests enter into a surreal world that could have been lifted right out of the 16th century.

Party-goer: Welcome, dear guests. Welcome, all my friends.

Behind their masks, people from bankers to bakers are equal. Tonight, no one knows who’s who and reality seems a distant dream. As it was centuries ago, what happens in Venice stays in Venice.