What Is Mardi Gras, And How Is It Celebrated?

It turns out there’s a lot more to Mardi Gras and Carnival than what happens in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro.
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What Is Mardi Gras, And How Is It Celebrated?

The celebration of Mardi Gras often gets boiled down to a very particular version of the holiday, held in New Orleans, Louisiana. This version involves beads, masks and lascivious behavior. There’s also Carnival, which happens during the same time period and has its own legendary basis in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But New Orleans and Rio are only small parts of a larger, more diverse spread of observances throughout the world. What is Mardi Gras, exactly? Turns out, it’s hard to find a single answer.

When Is Mardi Gras?

While Mardi Gras might not at first glance seem religious, its timing is based on the Christian calendar. It can vary a little, but generally, Carnival starts on the Epiphany, a Christian feast day held 12 days after Christmas, which is January 6. 

Carnival lasts until Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”), the day before Ash Wednesday, which itself is based on when Easter happens to fall that year. Easter’s date is calculated by finding the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after the start of Spring, or the Vernal Equinox. It’s a pretty confusing system that explicitly combines Christian and pagan traditions. To understand why, you have to go back to the origin of the celebration.

How Did Mardi Gras Start?

If you want to go way, way back to the beginnings of Mardi Gras, some historians point to the celebrations of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. Both of these were pagan festivals held in Ancient Rome, which involved all kinds of feasting and lewd behavior.

When Christianity made its way through Rome in the third and fourth centuries CE, Saturnalia and Lupercalia had to go. Christians, touting their one God, couldn’t allow festivals that honored the Roman gods to continue. Rather than get rid of them outright — as an outright ban on cherished traditions would lead to anger and unrest — Christians folded Saturnalia and Lupercalia into already existing Christian traditions. Therefore, the Roman traditions were brought into the Christian calendar leading up to Lent. Because Lent is a time when Christians would fast and give up their vices, it made sense to kick it off with a party that celebrated all of those same vices. While these early festivities feel a bit distant from modern Mardi Gras, they might have been the precursor to the spectacle we’re familiar with today.

Over the following centuries, these new Christian celebrations spread throughout Europe. Versions of the festivities popped up in France, Spain, Portugal and almost anywhere else that the Roman empire touched.  During the 16th century, as European powers started expanding their empires to Africa and the Americas, they brought their celebrations with them.

The person credited with bringing Mardi Gras to North America is the French-Canadian Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville. In 1699, Iberville led an exploration that entered into the mouth of the Mississippi River. Commemorating the start of their journey up the river, which happened to correspond with the Mardi Gras season, the explorer chose a patch of land a few dozen miles from what is modern New Orleans and named it Pointe du Mardi Gras.

While this origin story gives Louisiana a good claim to fame in Mardi Gras history, the state actually didn’t hold the first official celebration. Iberville and his crew continued up the Mississippi and founded a colony in what is today Mobile, Alabama. By 1703, people were visiting Mobile and joining krewes, which is the name for the social organizations that put together the various Mardi Gras celebrations. It wouldn’t be until the 1730s that New Orleans regularly hosted Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras And Carnival Celebrations Around The World

There are a huge number of celebrations that exist in the lead up to Lent. Pretty much anywhere that was at one point impacted by Catholicism has some sort of party around this time of year. The traditions vary vastly depending on the cultures that influenced them. These are a few of the more iconic Mardi Gras, but it’s nowhere near a comprehensive list.

New Orleans

The history of Mardi Gras in New Orleans could be an article all on its own. As mentioned above, there were celebrations going all the way back to the 1730s, but it’s not a direct line from then to today. In the middle of the 19th century, New Orleans was run by the Spanish, who tried to stamp out the French influence of the holiday (the city changed hands quite a bit before it became part of the United States). But in 1856, a group of men got together to form the Mystick Krewe of Comus, which put on the festivities anyway and is now the oldest organization in the city to do so. The Mystick Krewe of Comus is often credited with turning New Orleans into the Mardi Gras capital of the country, while also making it a much more English-centric holiday. Each year it draws huge numbers of tourists to the city, which is a good or bad thing depending on your point of view.

The structure of New Orleans Mardi Gras largely revolves around the many, many parades that are held in the week leading up to Ash Wednesday. Each parade is put on by a different krewe, and this is when the colorful beads and masks come out. These parades are also known for toplessness and heavy drinking, especially in the more touristy areas of the city.

We would also be remiss not to mention king cakes, the French-inspired pastries baked around this time. As per tradition, a plastic baby is hidden inside the cake (to symbolize the baby Jesus), and whoever finds it has to make the next king cake, thus creating a self-perpetuating system of dessert.

Acadia

Other parts of Louisiana don’t celebrate Mardi Gras exactly like the city folk do. In Acadia, also known as Cajun Country, there is a different kind of event. Men (and yes, only men) dress up in elaborate masked costumes and go from home to home begging for food. The food is often a chicken, which the revelers have to chase down if they really want it. It’s called Courir de Mardi Gras, and it varies from community to community but generally involves a lot of drinking. The whole day culminates in a party where the ingredients gathered throughout the day are combined to make a communal gumbo.

Rio De Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has the largest Carnival in the world. While the word “Carnival” might remind you of clowns, the word is, like Mardi Gras, based in Christianity. It’s derived from the Latin carne levare, which literally means “remove meat,” referring to the fact that during Lent, Christians aren’t supposed to eat meat. Starting the Friday before Ash Wednesday, Rio Carnival is a massive street festival that features samba, dancing, costumes and parades. It’s an important part of Brazilian culture, and Rio’s is just one of the many Carnivals in the country.

Venice

While many versions of Mardi Gras involve masks, none quite match the elaborate nature of the Carnival of Venice and its masquerade balls. Between Christmas and Lent, the people of Venice, Italy wear finely crafted masks. The masks have distinct styles, inspired by plague doctors, characters from famous theatrical pieces and other historical sources. It’s not entirely certain where the mask tradition began, but it might be related to the historical easing of dress codes and rules in Venice during the lead-up to Lent. It is known that the tradition stretches back to at least the 13th century, but there was a long stretch of time when it wasn’t held because of a ban in 1797 by the Holy Roman Emperor. Today, the period is marked by parades, balls and all other kinds of entertainment.

Sydney

The case of Mardi Gras down under is pretty different from many of the others around the world. Instead of growing out of Christianity, it grew out of a protest movement by members of the gay and lesbian community. In 1978, people in Sydney, Australia, held a parade to take part in an international movement to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots that occurred in the United States in June and July of 1969. Despite getting approval, the parade was broken up and dozens of people were arrested, and there was further anger when many participants were outed to families and employers for being at the event. Even so, the community did it again the following year, and a couple years later decided to move the parade to February so it could take place in Australian summer. This ended up connecting the parade with Mardi Gras, and they’ve merged to form what is now called Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (which is essentially both Pride and Mardi Gras at once). It’s now hugely popular, with a parade, after-parties and other events to commemorate the LGBTQ community in Australia.

London 

In the United Kingdom, the day before Ash Wednesday is often called Shrove Tuesday. “Shrove” is the past tense of “shrive,” meaning “to be absolved of sin,” which is something you’d want to do before Lent began. There’s a slightly more fun name for it, though: Pancake Day. Because you’d have to abstain from sweet and fatty foods during Lent, you’d want to use up all your sweet and fat ingredients beforehand. Other places have adopted this tradition using other foods, including malasadas (Portuguese donuts) in Hawaii and fasnachts (German donuts) in Pennsylvania. Eating pancakes is the most obvious form of celebration, but in London and many other parts of the United Kingdom, there are also pancake races — a race where you have to run while flipping a pancake in a pan along the way. It’s a far cry from many of the more raucous Carnival festivities, but a good demonstration of the very varied world of Mardi Gras.

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