Mardi Gras is one of the grandest celebrations in the United States. People from all over the world make their way to New Orleans, Louisiana to get a chance to join in the epic party. A tradition like Mardi Gras did not start over night, in fact, it is actually a very popular festival that can be found in countries around the world.
Mardi Gras originated thousands of years ago in accordance with the pagan spring and fertility celebrations in places like Rome. When Christianity began to grow in these cities, the religious leaders decided to not completely abandon these festivities, but instead repurpose them to be a way to celebrate the Christian faith. Instead, these revelries became a large display of rowdiness before the Christians would begin to observe the religious Lenten season, which is the span of 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. As the Roman Empire shared their faith with their conquests of the known world, the festival of Mardi Gras continued to be celebrated by countries that had a significant Roman Catholic population.
Historically, Mardi Gras would be a day of overindulgence in foods such as milk, cheese and meats before the people would only eat fish and fast during the 40 days.
According to some historians, Mardi Gras was eventually brought to its future home of New Orleans with the arrival of French explorers Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville and Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville arrived in the area that would become Louisiana. When they arrived there was a small event held, which would eventually grow into a more elaborate affair similar to what we associate with the holiday today with street parties, dinners and masked balls.
Although the party was temporarily halted during Spanish rule of the territory, the festivals began again when Louisiana became an official part of the United States in 1812. In 1827, a group of students put on colorful costumes and tries to capture the type of festival they had experienced in Paris. It wasn’t for another ten years before the first official parade took place and since then has grown into the epic celebration with parties, costumes, drinks and floats that we all know today.
The throwing of beads is easily one of the most recognizable traditions. The beads are typically purple, green and gold and were determined by the first Carnival king in 1872: Purple was for justice, green for faith and gold for power. The beads were supposed to be thrown to people who seemed to embody that idea and bring good luck.
The idea of wearing a mask gives the wearer the illusion of being able to escape whatever stresses, demands and restrictions that their social class may have had. With the mask, the person could be whoever they want with anyone they wanted for a small pocket of time.
The Flambeaux Tradition – Flambeaux means flame-torch and it is the where people have rope soaked in pitch to keep the streets lit for the party to continue even though the sun had gone down. Originally the torches were held by slaves and free African Americans who were trying to earn some money as crowds tossed coins at them.
With celebrations around the world, France is the birthplace of the other popular nickname for the festival of “Fat Tuesday,” but it is also referred to as “Carnival” in places like Rio de Janeiro. Brazil’s Carnival combines some of the aesthetics of various traditions of Europe, African and native celebrations. There is also the popular masquerade balls held at Venice’s Carnevale as well as the German tradition of Karneval / Fashnacht / Fasching where there are parades and even a tradition that allows women to cut off men’s ties.
Wherever you are in the world, now you know a little bit more about one of the biggest celebrated party traditions.