CHIAVARI, Italy – Okay, here’s the story. Carnival is over, right? It ended this week. Now we have 40 days until Easter. That’s what I always thought too, until I moved to Saronno, a small town about 20 minutes from Milan.
I had just written and posted a blog post about the grand finale of the festive pre-Lent celebrations at the Carnival in Venice, and then I went out to pick up some groceries. Much to my surprise the streets of Saronno were full of kids dressed like little pink princesses and Johnny Depp pirates with eye patches and gray plastic swords, all giggling and laughing and throwing confetti and silly string at each other.
And it wasn’t just the kids. In Saronno’s main piazza, right in front of the Cathedral, there were stands selling colorful candies and other goodies and everyone was acting like Carnival was still in full swing. What’s going on here, I asked myself. Don’t these people know Carnival is over?
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So I went home and started re-checking my Carnival facts thinking I would have to rewrite and repost my blog and apologize for getting my facts wrong. But truthfully Carnival really did end on Fat Tuesday and there really was a grand finale along Venice’s Grand Canal with candles and costumes and a gondola parade, and Lent really had started. But for some reason the news hadn’t made it to Saronno yet.
I decided to call Andrea, a local guy who knows about these things and ask him if he knew what was going on.
“On sure”, he said, “that’s easy. Here in Saronno we don’t follow the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, we follow the Ambrosian Calendar and for us Lent doesn’t start on Ash Wednesday, we don’t have Ash Wednesday, it starts next Sunday.
Oh, well, that explains it. Are you kidding me? For all my life the church was the church, the rules were the rules and now I find out that’s not true? There are two calendars and what else? Are there two Christmas’, two Easters? Can I make up my own calendar and have Christmas in May when the weather is a little better?
This is so confusing. So, I go back to the internet, Google in Ambrosian calendar and oh my God! up pops a whole load of stuff connected to Saint Ambrose. If you have ever visited the Duomo in Milan you already know that Saint Ambrose is the patron saint of the city. He was also the Bishop of Milan in the 4th century when there wasn’t just ONE Catholic religion, but a bunch of them, including the church in Rome, all trying to be the main ONE.
So while the Roman rite, from the church in Rome, eventually became the dominant Catholic rite, the Ambrosian/Milanese rite has managed to hang on to a group of followers as well. At least in Lombardy – until you get to Como, that is. In Como they follow the Roman calendar, or maybe their own calendar. I’m so confused at this point I really don’t know.
While the Roman calendar and the Ambrosian/Milanese calendar are more or less the same, there are some basic differences. For example, in the Ambrosian calendar Advent has six weeks and not four, Lent starts four days later so there is no Ash Wednesday and carnival doesn’t end until Sabato Grasso (Fat Saturday) instead of Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday). And one more big difference is that mass is not said on Fridays during Lent and communion is not offered either.
I also discovered that the Ambrosian/Milanese rite is only oe of several variations on this calendar theme. There are others. The Mozarabic rite is a Catholic rite that was first practiced in Spain in the 7th century. They too have their own calendar and their own feast days like December 18th which is the Mozarabic Feast of the Incarnation, and January 23, the feast day of Saint Ildephonsus, both of which are still celebrated.
In the area in and around Venice they practiced the Aquilela rite, which is more like the Ambrosian/Milanese rite than the Roman rite and lasted up until the 16th century when the Roman rite won out. In France the traditions of the Gallican liturgy were popular and are still followed in the city of Lyon. While in Braga, the oldest city in Portugal and one of the oldest Christian cities in the world, the Archdiocese of Braga practices an entirely different rite, the rite of Braga, just as they still do every now and again in the city of Providence, Rhode Island.
Whew. This is all so very confusing. Truthfully, I was never great at keeping up with all the rules and regs anyway so what I’m going to do is get my oh-so-blonde Paris Hilton wig, my red faux fur boa and my red high heel shoes off the top shelf of the closet, call up some friends and have my own private Carnival. As for Lent, I think what I’m going to do is give up trying to figure all this stuff out and just keep dancing in the streets till the party’s really over.