“Masked, I advance.” – Rene Descartes
We were walking through town a few weeks back and our family of five was going one way, and everyone else was going the other way. There was a sea of people weaving past us, all masked and distant, and I could not help but think of the last time I was surrounded by a crowd in masks. Traditionally, Carnival is a celebration in the Catholic faith leading up to Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent. We were lucky enough to participate in Carnival celebrations in France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Every celebration was so different and unique to each culture and many masks were worn for various reasons.
To mask something can mean many things: to cover, to conceal, to disguise, or to protect. Right now, is a unique time in our history when many of us are wearing masks every day for the first time. I know that it is not because we are going to a masquerade ball but rather to protect ourselves and our communities from contributing to the spread of the virus. The reason we are masked now is very different from the reasons people wear masks during Carnival, but the hope is, that by sharing some of the beauty and rationale behind the celebratory masks we have encountered, we may add some romance, mystery, and levity to our current mask-wearing ways …
France, Carnaval de Nice
In Nice, France, Carnaval de Nice is an homage to the importance of flowers in this region and spring blooms take center stage. Some of the floats and their masked performers were cloaked entirely in flower petals of every color, shape, and size. We will never forget the scent of the floats that passed us that day perfumed by blooms picked in the French Riviera. While it is harder to smell the roses with a mask on, it is important to spend time in nature and celebrate all the sensory glory it offers us every day.
Italy, Carnevale Porto Azzurro
At the Porto Azzurro Carnival on the island of Elba, we stumbled into the celebration after a long ferry ride. The masquerade ball was about to begin and our kids jumped right into the festivities. As we stood on the sidelines, someone came up behind us and gave us beautiful masks to wear in the square so we wouldn’t feel left out of the fun. One of the things we learned about parenting from Italians is that they are not usually bystanders. At the park, they play. After school, they play. In the piazza, they play. During Carnevale, they play. We took their lead, held up our masks, and were too busy playing to get a photo. Perhaps that is worth remembering right now. No more sidelines! Whether the sun is shining or not, mask up, it is time to play!
Italy, Carnevale di Viareggio
In Viareggio, Italy, the Carnevale floats were larger than life and all the masks were made out of paper mache! Many of the masks were created to make a political statement. I suppose that is true for us now as well. To mask or not to mask is a topic of much debate the world over. We will never forget people of all ages, dancing in the streets, and feeling an overwhelming sense of joy permeating the air we were breathing. Even through our colorful masks, as our kids bombarded other kids in a silly string battle, we could take deep breaths and inhale joy, hear other people’s laughter, and feel the sun on our faces. It is important to take deep breaths, especially now, listen for laughter, and turn our masked faces to the sun whenever we can.
Italy, Carnevale in Breuil-Cervinia
In the village of Cervinia in the Italian Alps, the “landzettes” wore completely handmade costumes with mirrors and bells to ward off evil spirits. Their role is to bring light, through pranks, dances and, jovial thievery, to villagers during the darker days of winter. They are a reminder to all that winter is coming to a close. It is important to recall their joy and light right now as winter comes to a close in the Northern Hemisphere.
In the history we have read, masquerade celebrations and balls were a time to disguise oneself to feel liberated from social norms. Many people masked themselves to conceal social standing, marital status, age, color, and sex. In our experience, at times the very masks used to disguise, seemed to bring out an authentic exuberance in the masked persona that may at times been more aligned with the nature of the individual than when they were not masked. Perhaps we can look at this time in history and the need for masks, as a way to bring out something deeper and truer in ourselves that is easier to hide behind when our full face is visible.
Beauty Behind The Mask
Perhaps the mask, as Descartes says, will help us advance through this time with vitality and the protection we need to be our most authentic selves. I remember during a Carnival celebration in Caldas da Rainha, Portugal a local man said to us, “I prefer these masks to the invisible ones people wear every day.” When the haze lifts, and we finally go out in public naked-faced, perhaps we will leave all the masks behind, invisible and otherwise, and we will smile from ear to ear for all the world to see the joy within.