The word „carnival“ comes from Italian „carne levare“, which means „take away the meat“. It's a Catholic festive season that occurs from the Three Kings' Day (6 of January) until the Ash Wednesday, the first day of 40 days fasting period before Easter (so-called Lent). Since from the Ash Wednesday begins a long period of fasting, reduction and abstinence of greasy food, especially meat, the people had to invent festive days with a lot of greasy doughnuts (Czech koblíhy or Croatian krafne), large portions of pork and other meats accompanied by great quantities of alcohol, music, and dances. Similar to Italian, Czech name for that period is masopust, meaning „letting go of meat“. Although Czechs are mostly Atheist nation, they are also lovers of good food and drinks so it's not a surprise that they decided to keep the carnival feasts.
The last days of the carnival are the feast days, days when people put traditional (or less traditional nowadays) masks, parade the streets, eat and drink, dance and celebrate. In the Czech Republic, masopust (or in Morava region fašank) begins on a Fat Thursday (Tučný čtvrtek) when for lunch you will get the traditional Czech meal „vepřo-knedlo-zelo“ (roast pork with bread dumplings and sauerkraut) and during the day you could eat and drink everything and as much as you can. The folk customs connected with masopust also include pig-slaughtering or zabijačka, which today is practiced only inside the few people's homes and public pig-slaughters are forbidden and left in the past.
The following festive days were Sunday and Monday when people used to go out dancing to the traditional festive music playing in bars (hospoda) and drinking beer or hard liquor (kořalka). But the biggest celebrating day was always Tuesday before the Ash Wednesday when you could see the colorful mask parades all over the town or between villages. Some of the traditional Czech masks, that are still present today in some parades, are bear and bear tamer, the two-peoples costume of a mare, chimney sweeper or fat Bakchus.
Today the bigger masopust festivals are probably organized in small villages than in cities, but in Prague you won't also lack the fairs, mostly concentrated in different neighbourhoods, with a variety of food (pork, goose, duck meat or other kinds of meat, sausages, doughnuts, crackling sticks, cotton candy and a lot of sweets) and drinks (coffee, beer, wine, hot wine, mead, kořalky, homemade fruit juices and syrups, etc.) and rich programme for kids (storytelling, workshops of masks, jumping castles, ...) and lots of local performers and music bands. The fairs are organized mostly during the weekend while you can still participate in the mask parades traditionally on Tuesday.
This weekend we visited two of the Prague neighborhoods where masopust was celebrated – Žižkov and Karlín. While in Žižkov the programme was pretty modest (it was only the first day of celebrations) with regular farmers market and a small stage with few local performers (the only ones that were wearing masks), the Karlín main square, around the beautiful Neo-Romanesque Cyril and Methodius Church, was crowded with families with children dressed in masks or adults who came to have some fun and enjoy masopust.