Carnival Traditions in France

by Sue McCarty
Wearing a mask as a disguise is a Carnival tradition in France.

Wearing a mask as a disguise is a Carnival tradition in France.

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While Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Rio de Janeiro may be famed for their pre-Lenten Roman Catholic celebrations, such festivities have their roots in Nice, France, the first city in Europe to formally celebrate ''Carnaval.” The first King Carnaval entered Nice in 1873 to announce weeks of feasting, drinking and revelry before observing the required 40 days of "carnevale," or putting away the meat, beginning on Ash Wednesday. While Nice still holds the largest Carnival in France, the festivals have spread throughout the country, sharing old traditions and creating new ones according to regional histories.

Pagan Roots

Deep-rooted in the pagan traditions of Saturnalia and Lupercalia – ancient celebrations of excesses of the flesh, feasting, drinking and the beginning of spring – "Carnivale" was included on the Christian calendar by Pope Gregory the Great in 600 A.D. While first designed as a three-day feasting time before the austerities of Lent, the holiday eventually lengthened into a full-blown festival during the height of the Middle Ages. The first written reference to "Carnaval" in France was made by Count Charles d’Anjou in 1294, who described attending the celebration in Nice on France's Cote d'Azur.

King Carnaval

In medieval France, the "King of Carnaval" was appointed from the lowliest and most miserable of its citizens. Beggars, thieves or prisoners took charge of cities, towns and villages during the opening day of the festivities, costumed in regal clothing, complete with crowns and scepters. Once their short reign was over, however, some were put to death, depending on their sentence. Today, choosing a King Carnaval is a matter of prestige, with much politicking among contenders for the coveted position.


During early Carnivals in France, when the whole purpose of the event was to turn the world upside-down while enjoying the excesses of food and drink, masks were worn by rich and poor alike in order to disguise their true identities while creating new, mysterious and often hideous ones. Paris royalty took the tradition a step further in later years, constructing fantastic costumes and mythologies to accompany their richly decorated masks. Whether plain, feathered or sequined, masks are a continuing Carnival tradition.

Boeuf Gras

Parading the boeuf gras, or fattened ox, down the main street of town on one of the last days of Carnival is a French tradition that started in the early 1700s. The ox, or bull, depending on the region, was highly decorated with flowers, bells and laurel leaves. A local child rode the animal, sitting on a woven tapestry and holding a scepter and sword. Few towns or cities today use live animals as the boeuf gras in Carnival parades, preferring to construct colorful papier-mâché animal totems.

Battle of Flowers

Original to the Nice Carnival, the Battle of Flowers was born out of the original tradition in which revelers pelted parade participants and each other with homemade confetti made of flour and eggs. Injuries prevailed, so beginning in 1873 the parade floats were decorated with hand-picked and arranged flower mosaics. This tradition spread along the French Riviera, with most coastal towns now covering Carnival floats in flowers. The floats are judged for beauty and originality, then the flowers are tossed to the crowds.

About the Author

Sue McCarty, a writer and copy editor since 1994, penned a newspaper humor column for several years. She assisted in her husband's motorcycle shop for 20 years and was also a professional gardener and caterer. While earning her Bachelor of Arts in communications, McCarty began her journalism career at a Pennsylvania daily newspaper.

Photo Credits

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