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The giant clown of the Paris carnival, 1897

The Paris Carnival is a carnival in the city of Paris in France. It occurs after the Feast of Fools and has been one of the major festivals of Europe since the sixteenth century or earlier.

History of Carnival in Paris

The Carnival of Paris is a festival with a very long history in the French capital. Nicolas de Baye wrote in his journal in 1411:

"Monday, the 22nd of February, the royal household, in order to observe the Lenten feast, which is tomorrow, will be rising before dawn [to prepare]".

The staying-power of the Carnival of Paris, the elements that have made it an institution for centuries, is based on an unbroken tradition of "festive and carnival societies" (the equivalent of the samba schools in Rio de Janeiro or the krewes of the New Orleans Mardi Gras) and the organized involvement of certain civic groups, corporations, and trade unions. The central role of the working class is illustrated, for example, by an anonymous poem of the eighteenth century:

Always at these kinds of masquerades, 
Workers take their special pleasures.
They wail, "We must watch our parades!  
This is something we've all treasured!"
Tomorrow we'll return to the usual grind, 
When Mardi Gras is, sadly, over, 
Food and drink will be hard to find 
And we'll do our best to recover.

Workers have always played a central role in the celebrations. What is less known is the fact that the Carnaval de Paris is also, traditionally, the feast of the Paris police. During the nineteenth century, the involvement of butchers, launderers, traders, and students became essential to the liveliness of the Carnival. The variety, the multi-class composition, of the participants is found in carnivals throughout the world. Whether in Dunkirk or Brazil, tradition, organization, and the involvement of diverse segments of the population are essential for the well-being of the party.

Edouard Manet, Le bal de l'Opéra, 1873

Until the early-twentieth century, the Paris Carnival lasted much longer than just the one day, Tuesday of Mardi Gras. In 1690, in his Dictionary, Antoine Furetière wrote these words, which apply also to Paris:

"CARNIVAL, masculine noun: time of rejoicing lasting from Epiphany until Lent. Dances, feasts, and marriages are mainly held at Carnival time."

Sixty-two years later, in 1752, the Encyclopedia of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert confirmed this impression with almost the same words Furetière used. (In fact, so close is the correspondence that, it seems, Furetière might have been Diderot’s source.):

"The carnival begins the day after Epiphany, or the 7th of January, and lasts until Lent. Dances, feasts, and marriages are mainly held during carnival."

However, the Carnaval de Paris has also endured a hiatus; it was forgotten for forty years, from the early 1950s until 1993. Even today, many Parisians do not know that the carnival exists. They are also ignorant of the fact that central to the carnival celebration is the appearance of certain traditional characters, stereotypes with distinctive costumes who appear every year, and that there are a number of traditional carnival jokes. These truly "old jokes" have survived from as long ago as the seventeenth century. During the years, 1950 to 1993, the words "Carnaval de Paris" were seldom spoken. Parisians were always able to celebrate "Mardi Gras", of course; they simply had to travel to Nice or Rio de Janeiro.

Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capuchins, 1873

The Carnaval de Paris has inspired great artists. The picture reproduced here on the left was painted by Edouard Manet. It represents the famous masked ball at the Paris opera, which is held during the Carnival. The picture on the right is by Claude Monet, and it shows the ‘’boulevard des Capucines’’ where the processions take place.

Street activities

At street level, two types of event are traditionally part of the Carnival de Paris: the walk of masks, and the processions.

The walk of masks involves people in disguise in huge numbers, and the curious come to see them, at a given location at a given time. Here's what Dulaure says of this phenomenon in 1787 :

"Rue Saint-Antoine is famous for the prodigious contest of masks held every year on the last day of the carnival, which attracts a large number of the curious."

Other traditional events of the carnival are the parades and processions:

  • The fat days occurred during "the last days of carnival", according to Dulaure. The "fat days" started during the eighteenth century, when they began on Thursday and ended five days later, on Mardi Gras. In the nineteenth century, they were restricted to Sunday, Monday, and Mardi Gras (Tuesday) only. They end when the Promenade du Boeuf Gras (Procession of the Fat Ox) begins.
A modern carnival poster
  • Twenty-one days after Mardi Gras is the Thursday of Mid-Lent (Mi-Carême). Mid-Lent is also called the Feast of Laundresses, for it is the feast day of their parade, and of their queens, and of the Queen of Laundresses. They inspired, during the last years of the nineteenth century, other guilds and unions to elect their own queens.

The procession of Bœuf Gras is mentioned in Paris records dating from 1274. The practice was cited as "a traditional practice" by the city government in 1739. It became an event of enormous proportions during the nineteenth century when it became the de facto feast day of the city of Paris. In 1896 and 1897, to mock the Promenade du Boeuf Gras, certain artists organized a counter-procession in the Montmartre neighborhood called the Promenade de la Vache Enragée (Procession of the Angry Cow), also known as the ‘’Vachalcade’’. Originally intended to be an annual event, it only lasted two seasons.



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