The History of Mardi Gras
Some might say that organized religion took away some of the more heathen aspects of enjoying life. If you go way back into history, long before Christianity even existed in Europe, pagan people celebrated springtime with wild, untamed festivals that honored the gods and goddesses of spring and fertility. Through time, these celebrations of old evolved into events that were decidedly raucous, filled with excessive eating and drinking, including great frivolity, mayhem, and quite a bit of disorderly conduct, including men running naked through the streets. During the time surrounding the 5th century when Christianity eventually came to Europe, it became quite apparent that the converted Romans and others who had become used to this annual time of general debauchery, weren’t likely to give up what had become a great annual tradition, even for religion’s sake. The Catholic Church decided that it made much more sense to assimilate these slightly crazy annual pagan rituals into Catholic tradition rather than to even attempt to abolish them. The tradition of Mardi Gras was born.
Mardi Gras, translated from French into English, means Fat Tuesday. This somewhat hedonic and very festive celebration, known as Carnival in some countries, is always marked on the day before Ash Wednesday. Historically, Fat Tuesday for Catholics had become a day for somewhat ridiculous feasting because it preceded Lent, a forty day time period of strict fasting during which the devout would abstain from all types of meat consumption. On Fat Tuesday, it became commonplace to completely gorge oneself on all manner of meat, eggs, cheese and milk, washing it all down with a whole lot of wine and ale.
Celebrating, Mardi Gras Style
As history tells the tale, over time the celebrating surrounding Mardi Gras took on a life of its own. The French explorers Iberville and Bienville were said to hold the very first official Mardi Gras celebration, just south of what would eventually become the city of New Orleans. Although simple, this early shindig held the rudimentary beginnings of what would eventually become a huge, time-honored celebration that we now know as Mardi Gras. Although this first Mardi Gras party was rather small, in the years that subsequently followed, Mardi Gras exploded into a huge gala, eventually becoming known for its epic overindulgence and generalized merrymaking.
Mardi Gras celebrations are certainly not isolated to New Orleans, however, although this legendary city retains the title of holding what is obviously the biggest Mardi Gras celebration in the United States, Mardi Gras bringing in nearly 300 million dollars annually to the New Orleans economy. In Rio de Janeiro, Mardi Gras is known as “Carnival,” also having a similar reputation for its extreme revelry and partying by the masses. Other locations to catch a good Mardi Gras bash include Montreal, Canada, Binche: Binche, Belgium, Venice, Italy and Sydney, Australia.
Mardi Gras Traditions
Parades, Floats, Masks and Parade Throws: When most people think of Mardi Gras, the first thing that comes to mind is often the large Mardi Gras parades, with many very lavish and elaborate floats as an integral part of them. The very first Mardi Gras parade was held way back in 1872, with an official King of Mardi Gras (King Rex) presiding over the festivities. The tradition of Mardi Gras parades has been held intact ever since with a very wide variety of Mardi Gras parades being held during this annual celebration.
Mardi Gras float riders are actually required by law to wear masks, but the wearing of masks is common for the general populace attending Mardi Gras and is considered tradition. The practice of wearing masks during Mardi Gras began way back in history. The Mardi Gras mask offered the wearer the opportunity to not only disguise himself during the festivities, giving him an air of mystery, but at the same time the wearer could mingle during the revelry with whomever he liked, masks making any class distinction completely obsolete. Today, Mardi Gras masks run the gamut when it comes to styling, from the very simple half-mask to very elaborate Venetian style masks decorated with everything from feathers to jewels.
Parade throws are another example of a Mardi Gras tradition that began long ago that has endured into our modern day Mardi Gras celebrating. Since 1872, float riders have tossed out these traditional parade throws to parade-watchers, much to their delight and pleasure. Commonly seen items tossed into the crowds of Mardi Gras onlookers include colorful plastic beads, doubloons, cups and many assorted trinkets. Obtaining a large stash of these parade throws has become every Mardi Gras attendee’s objective and many have been known to do all sorts of outrageous things in order to obtain as many of these Mardi Gras souvenir baubles as possible.
King Cake: The baking and serving of what is known as a King cake is another Mardi Gras tradition that has endured for many, many years. The king cake was actually designed in order to honor the three Magi who were said to visit the baby Jesus after his birth. Baked inside every King cake is a small plastic or porcelain baby. Mardi Gras custom states that whomever get the miniature baby in their slice of cake must host the following year’s King Cake party.
Masked Balls: Members of the Krewes hold very exclusive masked balls during the time of Mardi Gras. Krewes are private social clubs that are responsible for making most of the floats that are in the Mardi Gras parades. The Krewes host the formal (and usually private) masked balls that go hand in hand with the more aristocratic side of Mardi Gras. These decorous and elaborate masked balls are an opportunity for only a select few to have a night of exquisite dancing and fine dining. Attending these functions is by invitation only, however, and these events are not available to the masses.
Many parade producers in order to give the public a more complete Mardi Gras experience have begun to create events surrounding their parades that can be attended by the public and these parade events have turned into miniature Mardi Gras extravaganzas. These events allow everyday people to dress up in their masks and finery while they enjoy the parade as well as some very fabulous Mardi Gras style food.
Symbols of Mardi Gras: The official colors of Mardi Gras are green, gold and purple. Green is said to represent faith. Purple is representative of justice. Gold is the color of power. The official song of Mardi Gras is “If Ever I Cease To Love,” a song that was immensely popular back in the late 1800’s, with charming lyrics such as:
"May fish get legs, and cows lay eggs, if ever I cease to love"
Fun seekers throughout the world have loved and will continue to enjoy the traditions surrounding the beloved celebration of Mardi Gras. At Mardi Gras time, partying is done on nothing less than the grandest scale and if living large is part of your game plan, Mardi Gras could very well be something you should experience.
Whether you attend a legitimate Mardi Gras (or Carnival) celebration somewhere in the world or you host a smaller Mardi Gras themed party in your very own neighborhood, Mardi Gras will always be the perfect opportunity to celebrate the last day of truly embraced and encouraged debauchery before the onset of Lent. Eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow we fast! Don’t forget to wear your mask because apparently what happens at Mardi Gras, stays at Mardi Gras. Not a bad gig at all. Laissez les bon temps roulez!
Happy Mardi Gras from your friends at Halloween Express!