Although I generally identify as a "casual Buddhist", I have to say that there is something to be said for the Catholic church's flair for drama. In order to prepare for Lent, for example, Christians indulge themselves during Mardi Gras, a day of celebration and decadent feasting. The festivities generally include brightly colored beads and a cake with a plastic baby inside. The Carnival of Venice is based on the same impending period of self-restraint, but this particular celebration, with a history that dates back to the year 1162, takes its debauchery quite seriously.
According to local lore, the festival was born out of a victory against the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrico, after which people danced and celebrated in San Marco Square. After the 18th century, the festival declined, but was brought back by the government in 1979, as a means of restoring the culture and history of Venice.
The masks are a main feature of the carnival, and in Venice, they can be worn from St. Stephan's Day (December 26) until midnight on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Lent). Masks were also allowed on Ascension and from October 5 until Christmas. Some historians have posited that the enormous popularity of masks in Venice is a reaction to the rigid class hierarchy of the city, which could be circumvented with masks.
via National Geographic