This past week marked the beginning of Lent, a fasting season in the Christian calendar lasting about 40 days and concluding with the Easter holiday. Lent is often preceded by revelry and celebration. Depending on where you are in the world, these celebrations are known as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, and more. Growing up, I knew it as Carnaval.
Many people in the United States associate Carnaval with Brazil and its spectacular celebrations; but Carnaval is not unique to Brazil. Pre-Lent festivities grew out of communities around the world heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. Carnaval precedes Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the 40-day Lenten period associated with sacrifice. Historically, observers of Lent would stop or limit their consumption of meat (carne-vale) and also engage in periods of fasting. Carnaval became a "final" festive moment to revel and indulge before entering the season of Lent.
Carnaval is celebrated throughout the Portuguese-speaking world and has roots in Portugal. In the Azores Islands, Carnaval festivities include food, dancing, festas, performances, and time to connect with family and friends. When my mãe (mom) was growing up on Terceira Island (1950s-1970s), her family would prepare tables of sweets in anticipation of passing visitors stopping by the weekend before and leading up to Ash Wednesday. Buses of performers from different freguesias (parishes) would travel from town to town to perform their danças (groups of people in costumes performing dances, allegories, and poetic-style comedy). Modern Portuguese American halls continue some of these traditions in the United States, although COVID has impacted gatherings in recent years.
Indulging in food has been and continues to be a central feature for Carnaval festivities, especially fried delights:
Malassadas (also known as Filhoses, Portuguese Donuts, Fried Dough), akin to doughnuts dusted in cinnamon and sugar. Try this recipe by Maria Lawton, the Azorean Greenbean.
Coscorões, dough that's fried crispy and then dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Try this recipe by Azoresgal.
Sonhos, sort of like fried cream puffs with a crispy exterior and airy interior; again dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Try this recipe by Leite's Culinaria.
While Carnaval has come and gone again this year, I love the spirit of this holiday and the way it brings people together. While, for many, indulgence may be synonymous with Carnaval, I lean more towards fulfillment. Last year around this time, my little family and I paraded through our house dancing and wearing home-made masks, an homage to Carnaval. We needed playfulness, as we were still deep in the pandemic, mostly isolated at home, and we had just experienced an extra long weekend of winter weather that resulted in our house losing power and heat. Even--and perhaps especially--during moments of hardship, the spirit of Carnaval invites us to find joy, celebration, gratitude, and fulfillment.
Looking for goodies to fill Easter baskets this year? Kiddos are loving these baking-inspired bilingual children's books. Get yours here!