I have just done a tour of the calendars in the house, looking at what they say about this short month of February (which, maybe to compensate for having been allotted fewer days than all the other months, has been granted the honor of an extra day every four years to pick up the left-over hours those other months were unable to accommodate).Though not all the calendars note it, in the US, it is Black History Month, which seems a fair subject to learn about and celebrate, though a number of people apparently don’t quite agree. But, whether or not, it is a serious and important topic to address.
The calendars all do agree that this is the month of Groundhog Day, originally a day when a groundhog in Pennsylvania is supposed to inform the Northern Hemisphere how much longer it will take for spring to defeat winter. Fair enough; one can get tired of winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
A little less than two weeks later, on the 14th, the calendars inform us that it is Valentine’s day, honoring St. Valentine (at least one of them, since apparently there were several), the day of lovers, to be celebrated with flowers, sweets, and signs of affection. It is not entirely clear why St. Valentine came to be the patron saint of lovers (at least in some places), but he seems to have been a very kind and beloved member of the clergy, and a persuasive preacher. There is one hypothesis according to which his feast became associated with love and coupling, because in some places, in the Middle Ages, there was the belief that birds coupled in the middle of February.
The calendars also marked Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the forty days of Lent, when the faithful are enjoined to repent their sins and curtail their pleasures in preparation for the high holidays of Good Friday and Easter - one of the pleasures to be refrained from is (or was) the eating of meat. So the day before that became thought of as the day of “carne vale”, or, perhaps “carnelevare,” the former apparently folk etymology from medieval Latin “goodbye to meat,” and the latter, apparently more likely, from old Italian “easy on the meat,” or “take away meat.” But the point is that the expression gave rise to the word “carnaval,” or “carnevale,” or “carnival,” depending on the language, a day, or three days before the beginning of Lent, during which the idea is to enjoy everything as much as possible, and often as much as - or maybe more than - reasonable or legal.
Brazil takes this encouragement to enjoy quite seriously; starting on Saturday before the beginning of Lent, there are parties, preferably costume parties, and parades along main thoroughfares, dancing in the streets - also in costumes - with drums and bands and lots of noise. Schools are closed; no point running them, since the students would not really be coming or paying attention to classes. Some cities are centers of Carnival activity - Rio and Salvador (capital of the Northeastern state of Bahia) in particular. And in Rio the festivities culminate in a huge parade, with elaborate floats carrying elaborately costumed drummers and musicians and dancers, ending at the main soccer stadium where there is more dancing and drumming and celebrating (here is an example of the Rio parade).
Costuming is very widespread - children love it at least as much as the adults. It is fun to inhabit a person that is not oneself. And it occurs to me that these days, in the US, it might be problematic to talk of enjoyment in this kind of performance, which plays with the concept of “identity” in the person wearing the costume as well as in whomever the costume portrays, whether someone of a different culture, nationality, or sex (is it “appropriation” if a little girl wears a wide skirt and a lace-decorated top and a headscarf and bracelets and bangles, as she imagines a girl from a Roma group might, so much more fun than what she is ordinarily made to wear?). Or what to make of a whole block of male dancers on the street, dressed in women’s clothes, with makeup and all. And of course, there is the grand ball in the Municipal Theater in Rio, which culminates in a parade of drag queens, one of whom is then crowned and makes all the news outlets. (The news that the Brazilian-born new Congressman from New York State went dancing in drag, with other drag queens, is not quite as weird or shocking, if you think of it in terms of Carnaval, as it probably looks to an audience with no experience of those local traditions.)
But much of the fun was quite tame. My father (a cheerful man who enjoyed being with us young ones, and whose company was enjoyed by all his daughters’ friends) would pack as many as possible of family and friends into his car and take off for the car parade on a main avenue near our home, and join all the other cars, rolling along slowly, with time for stepping out and hopping about and dancing, and spraying other dancers with some kind of cheap cologne (one learned to wear eye protectors, since one of the points of those was to spray others in their eyes, which burned unpleasantly) and throw streamers and confetti. And sometimes parents would allow their young to have parties, which could turn raucous. And I assume that some forbidden activities also took place, though I never heard of any particular example of one (but then, I was ridiculously innocent then. Still?...)
The rule was that all of that had to stop on Tuesday, at midnight, which it of course never really did, and contrition should set in. Which it perhaps eventually did. What was in fact the case, was that businesses either opened at noon on Wednesday, or did not open on that day at all, allowing for the revelers to recover. And, for some of them, as well as for some who might even have skipped all that pagan reveling, to allow them to go to Mass and leave with a dot of ash on their foreheads, as a sign of said contrition.
And on to the meatless Lent. Fish and seafood in general, by the way, was allowed. And I assume that crab cakes, fresh shrimp, and a good lobster would make all that contrition more bearable.
Happy February, everyone.