This Tuesday (5th February) as we Brits tuck into our pancakes, across the water Portugal will be celebrating the last day of Mardi Gras Carnival. In Britain we eat pancakes because shrove Tuesday marks the end of shrovetide and the beginning of Lent. During Lent, those who are religiously inclined may give up certain luxuries to honour Christ’s journey into the desert where his faith was sorely tested by a certain bad guy. It was traditional to use up foods that would not keep during the traditional 40 days and 40 nights of fasting such as eggs and cream, hence the pancakes.
Likewise in Portugal, the Mardi Gras always coincides with shrovetide in England, for it too has its roots in the Christian calender. There is some evidence to suggest that the word ‘carnival’ stems from ‘carne vale’ which in Latin means ‘farewell to meat’. Meat would have been one of the things people gave up during Lent.
Of course many of us these days happily eat pancakes just simply because it is pancake day and in Portugal people can simply celebrate because there is a celebration! The streets are filled with food and families, strange giant dolls known as gigantones wander through the streets along with those in bright costumes moving to the beat of thrilling drums. It’s a heady garish mixture that is a marvel to witness and a delight to be part of.
In my tradition I celebrate Imbolc which means ‘in the belly’. It is a time of beginnings: tender shoots beginning to emerge under the still frozen earth, snowdrops bear the snow. It’s a time of purification and getting the groundwork done so that things can grow in the future. When I look into the faces of the gigantones it makes me think that some ancient memory is at play here – that there is hope for growth and a willingness to celebrate what may seem impossible right now. It is the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring, we too must raise our heads up to the sun.
Carnival is an exciting time in Portugal and those of you planning a winter trip will not be disappointed. Celebration take place all over the country including in Lisbon. Make your way to Parque das Nações and join in the fun.