A Christian holiday and popular cultural phenomenon, Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years to pagan spring and fertility rites. Also known as Carnival, it is celebrated in many countries around the world–mainly those with large Roman Catholic populations–on the day before the religious season of Lent begins Brazil, Venice and New Orleans play host to some of the holiday’s most famous public festivities, drawing thousands of tourists and revelers every year.
According to historians, Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, including the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate these popular local traditions into the new faith, an easier task than abolishing them altogether. As a result, the excess and debauchery of the Mardi Gras season became a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Along with Christianity, Mardi Gras spread from Rome to other European countries, including France, Germany, Spain and England. Traditionally, in the days leading up to Lent, merrymakers would binge on all the meat, eggs, milk and cheese that remained in their homes, preparing for several weeks of eating only fish and fasting. In France, the day before Ash Wednesday came to be known as Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday.” The word “carnival,” another common name for the pre-Lenten festivities, may also derive from this vegetarian-unfriendly custom: in Medieval Latin, carnelevarium means to take away or remove meat.
Popular practices on Mardi Gras include wearing masks and costumes, overturning social conventions, dancing, sports competitions, parades, debauchery, etc. Similar expressions to Mardi Gras appear in other European languages sharing the Christian tradition, as it is associated with the religious requirement for confession before Lent begins. In many areas, the term “Mardi Gras” has come to mean the whole period of activity related to the celebratory events, beyond just the single day. In some American cities, it is now called “Mardi Gras Day” It also has become a single people’s counter to the coupled-centric Valentine’s Day.
The festival season varies from city to city, as some traditions consider Mardi Gras the entire period between Epiphany or Twelfth Night and Ash Wednesday. Others treat the final three-day period before Ash Wednesday as the Mardi Gras. In Mobile, Alabama, Mardi Gras-associated social events begin in November, followed by mystic society balls on Thanksgiving, then New Year’s Eve, followed by parades and balls in January and February, celebrating up to midnight before Ash Wednesday. In earlier times, parades were held on New Year’s Day. Other cities famous for Mardi Gras celebrations include Rio de Janeiro; Barranquilla, Colombia; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; Quebec City, Canada; Mazatlán and Sinaloa, Mexico; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Mobile, Alabama
Carnival is an important celebration in Anglican and Catholic European nations. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the week before Ash Wednesday is called “shrove tide”, ending on Shrove Tuesday. It has its popular celebratory aspects, as well. Pancakes are a traditional food. Pancakes and related fried breads or pastries made with sugar, fat, and eggs are also traditionally consumed at this time in many parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.
While not observed nationally throughout the United States, a number of traditionally ethnic French cities and regions in the country have notable celebrations. Mardi Gras arrived in North America as a French Catholic tradition with the Le Moyne brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, in the late 17th century, when King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France’s claim on the territory of Louisiane, which included what are now the U.S. states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
The expedition, led by Iberville, entered the mouth of the Mississippi River on the evening of March 2, 1699, Lundi Gras. They did not yet know it was the river explored and claimed for France by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1683. The party proceeded upstream to a place on the east bank about 60 miles downriver from where New Orleans is today, and made camp. This was on March 3, 1699, Mardi Gras, so in honor of this holiday, Iberville named the spot Point du Mardi Gras and called the nearby tributary Bayou Mardi Gras. Bienville went on to found the settlement of Mobile, Alabama in 1702 as the first capital of French Louisiana. In 1703 French settlers in Mobile established the first organized Mardi Gras celebration tradition in what was to become the United States. The first informal mystic society, or krewe, was formed in Mobile in 1711, the Boeuf Gras Society. By 1720, Biloxi had been made capital of Louisiana. The French Mardi Gras customs had accompanied the colonists who settled there.
On 1723, the capital of Louisiana was moved to New Orleans, founded in 1718. The first Mardi Gras parade held in New Orleans is recorded to have taken place in 1837. The tradition in New Orleans expanded to the point that it became synonymous with the city in popular perception, and embraced by residents of New Orleans beyond those of French or Catholic heritage. Mardi Gras celebrations are part of the basis of the slogan, Laissez les bons temps rouler, (Let the good times roll). Other cities along the Gulf Coast with early French colonial heritage, from Pensacola, Florida; Galveston, Texas; to Lafayette, Louisiana, have active Mardi Gras celebrations in balls. In the rural Acadiana area, many Cajuns celebrate with the Courir de Mardi Gras, a tradition that dates to medieval celebrations in France.
Across the globe, pre-Lenten festivals continue to take place in many countries with significant Roman Catholic populations. Brazil’s weeklong Carnival festivities feature a vibrant amalgam of European, African and native traditions. In Canada, Quebec City hosts the giant Quebec Winter Carnival. In Italy, tourists flock to Venice’s Carnevale, which dates back to the 13th century and is famous for its masquerade balls. Known as Karneval, Fastnacht or Fasching, the German celebration includes parades, costume balls and a tradition that empowers women to cut off men’s ties. For Denmark’s Fastevlan, children dress up and gather candy in a similar manner to Halloween–although the parallel ends when they ritually flog their parents on Easter Sunday morning.
Mardi Gras Terms and facts:
Krewe – a general name for the organizations and clubs that take part in the festivities. They are all non-profit organizations.
King Cake – an oval, sugared cake; sometimes with a plastic baby baked inside. The person that gets the baby is the “king” and has to buy the next round of cakes.
Throws – inexpensive trinkets thrown from floats. This sets Mardi Gras apart from other parades.
Each year 750,000 King Cakes are sold in New Orleans, while 50,000 more are shipped by over-night mail to other states.
According to the New Orleans Sanitation Department, before recycling programs began 2,000 plus tons of debris from the last 12 days of parades was removed in the late 1980s.
The celebration brings in $840 million in revenues for New Orleans alone.
The official colors of Mardi Gras: purple (justice), green (faith), and gold (power) were picked in 1872, but weren’t given their meanings until 1892.
The first “throw” took place in 1871, when someone dressed as Santa Claus handed out gifts to the crowd from the 24th float in the Twelfth Night Revelers parade.
The most used anthem of Mardi Gras is the song “If Ever I Cease to Love.”
WHEN IS MARDI GRAS?: MARDI GRAS DATES
2015: February 17
2016: February 9
2017: February 28
2018: February 13
2019: March 5
2020: February 25
The following are a few suggestions for Mardi Gras invitations that will add a personalized touch to the upcoming event:
New Orleans Invitations (2428) A watercolor New Orleans street scene decorates these Mardi Gras invitations. Set includes 20 invitations and 20 plain White envelopes. Matching accessories sold separately.
Easter Eggs Invitations (2352) A tower of festively decorated eggs forms the left-hand border on these classic White cards. They’re perfect for your Easter celebration event.
Reptile Party Invitations (2338) If your little one loves reptiles, they’ll love these invitations! Snakes, lizards and turtles are just a few of the reptilian critters on this invitation. A terrific invitation for a themed party or any child’s party really. Coordinate these invitations with matching return address labels. Labels are sold separately. Set includes 20 cards and 20 plain White envelopes
Luck Of The Irish Invitations (2355) A green border and large shamrock decorate these classic White invitations. They’re perfect for your Irish celebration, birthdays, or any other special event.