Mardi Gras Around the World
- By Jenna Maxwell
Mardi Gras: A Worldwide Celebration
Mardi Gras is a very old celebration that has been around since the time of the Ancient Romans. When you think of Mardi Gras, you probably think of the well-known festivities that occur annually in New Orleans. Mardi Gras, however, is celebrated throughout the world and is known by many different monikers. Although the festivities and customs may vary from place to place, the theme of Mardi Gras remains the same. Eat, drink and be merry... because tomorrow, we fast!
Mardi Gras is a French term meaning, "Fat Tuesday." The celebration of Mardi Gras began as a pre-Lentel time of gaiety, partying and mostly, eating and drinking. Traditionally during the 40-day period of Lent, no meat, eggs, cheese, alcohol or rich foods were eaten by the devout. Lent, which occurs six weeks prior to Easter, was considered to be a time of reverent penitence and fasting. To most folks it just made sense that before Lent ever began, it was appropriate to have one last hurrah. This final party should, of course, include a whole lot of feasting, drinking, and at times, even a little depravity.
New Orleans, Louisiana: Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras was brought to Louisiana by French explorers who brought the custom with them from Europe, celebrating the first Mardi Gras on American soil in about 1703. Krewes are societies or groups of people that organize at Mardi Gras time in order to put on elaborate parades, balls or other festivities. Many of the Krewes in New Orleans have been around for decades and have a rich history filled with Mardi Gras tradition.
In 1870, a New Orleans Krewe known as the Twelfth Street Revelers began the custom of tossing throws. Beads, doubloons, small toys and other trinkets are tossed from the parade floats to the onlookers. These Mardi Gras souvenirs are often marked with the sponsoring Krewe's logo. Nowadays, parade throws are a huge, and very desired part of Mardi Gras revelry and parade watchers will try varying ways of getting the attention of float riders in order to obtain these coveted little baubles. Women have even been encouraged to expose their breasts as a sure-fire means of obtaining some parade throws.
In addition to parades, Mardi Gras is also a time for traditional masquerade balls. Mardi Gras masks have been a part of Mardi Gras tradition for hundreds of years. Traditionally, theses masks were worn during Mardi Gras in order to conceal one's identity as Mardi Gras was often a time of debauchery and heavy partying. Today, Mardi Gras masks are worn mostly because of a long-standing tradition. Because of this deeply seeded tradition, all float riders at Mardi Gras are actually legally required to wear a mask. Mardi Gras partygoers and spectators mostly just wear masks to get into the spirit of the event and for fun.
Mardi Gras traditionally has always been a time of sanctioned heavy eating and drinking. Popular Cajun style foods served during the celebration of Mardi Gras including Gumbo, Jambalaya, Andouille, Crawfish, Shrimp Creole, Po-Boy Sandwiches, red beans and rice, Oysters Rockefeller, Bananas Foster, Bread Pudding, Beignets, and of course, King Cake. King Cake was created in remembrance of the Wise men or Magi, who came to visit the baby Jesus after his birth. King Cake is a cinnamon roll-like pastry that is baked with a small toy baby inside. During Mardi Gras, whoever gets the slice of King Cake with the baby is said to have a year of good fortune in their future.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Carnival
Likely the most popular holiday celebrated in Brazil, Carnival is also one of the biggest parties in the entire world. In Rio de Janeiro, at Carnival time, millions of people will take to the streets in order to celebrate this very lively and festive annual event. Carnival begins about a week before the traditional Tuesday that falls the day before Ash Wednesday.
One of the biggest parts of Brazilian Carnival is the dance known as the Samba. During Carnival, various Samba schools (Samba clubs) will perform the Samba while in parades, wearing very elaborate costumes. In addition to extravagant parades, Carnival has many other festivities for patrons to enjoy. Street entertainment, food, and music will be found in rich abundance. Elegant masquerade balls will also be held, much in the tradition of those that began centuries ago in Venice, Italy. Although costumes are not mandatory at many balls in Rio, most people do choose to wear them along with the customary, Carnival-style masks.
In Rio de Janeiro, Carnival has been a traditional time for folks to let go of their inhibitions and just have a raucous good time. Carnival also offers the perfect opportunity for many to live out their innermost fantasies by wearing crazy costumes and getting into whatever character they may desire. There is no such thing as making a fool of yourself at Carnival--and if you do, you can always blame it on Rio.
Mazatlan, Mexico: Carnival
Mazatlan is the host to the third largest Mardi Gras party in the world. 70% of Mazatlan's population is part of the Catholic faith. It may seem just a tad ironic that such a rip-roaring party prefaces the solemnity and prayer that is part of Lent, but this has become the norm in many Mardi Gras celebrations. In Mazatlan, Carnival is absolutely the perfect time for all to let their hair down one last time.
Along the spectacular coastline of Mexico, hundreds and thousands of costumed revelers will be enjoying the festivities that are part of Mardi Gras custom. This age-old festival has been celebrated in Mazatlan since 1898, and the seven-day event has become a 117-year-old tradition that has been fully embraced by both the locals and thousands of tourists each year.
During Mazatlan's Mardi Gras celebrating there will be elaborate parades, live music, street entertainment, fireworks, and of course plenty of fabulous food and drink-all perfect for pre-Lent feasting.
Cadiz, Spain: Carnival
The folks of Spain are still making up for lost time. For over forty years from 1928-1975, the then head of state, General Francisco Franco, banned all Carnival celebrations. It was unfortunately then thought that Carnival might be a front for various criminal activities. After the General's death in 1975, the ban on Carnival was lifted and Spaniards began to rebuild the old tradition of Carnival, trying to restore the customs that were once a huge part of Spanish/Christian culture.
The largest Carnival celebration in Spain is held in Cadiz. During the week that comes before Lent, there will be many elaborate parades, masked balls and various other opportunities to wear costumes and creative masks. Live music, street performers, and fireworks are also part of the Spanish version of Carnival.
During the Carnival festivities, singers called Chirigotas will sing throughout the streets of Spain. The songs sung by the Chirigotas are parodies as well as satirical tunes, usually about news, politics or even celebrities. It seems that everyone must have his or her sense of humor intact during the lively celebration of Carnival.
Nice, France: Carnival
The Carnival celebration in Nice, France is likely one of the oldest in existence in the world today. References to Carnival in this coastal French city have been made as far back as the 13th century, and the celebrations here still remain some of the world's largest.
In Nice, the Mardi Gras celebrating begins two weeks prior to Lent, ending on Fat Tuesday. In true Carnival tradition, during the weeks prior to Lent, excess is not only authorized, but also encouraged. Historically, Carnival was a time of great gaiety and merriment. During the festivities, all things were mocked, and it was common to make fun of everyone and everything. The wearing of Carnival masks became the norm in order to conceal one's identity during all of the raucous and rowdy fun.
Today Carnival festivities are very popular in Nice. Extremely elaborate floats, some created with the help of renowned sculptors, will parade through the streets. Each year the Carnival celebration will have a different theme, this year's theme being "The King of Music." Traditionally the parade floats in Nice are famous for their amazing flowers. Each year, "The Battle of the Flowers" occurs amongst the participating floats in the parade. As the parade progresses, and the floats go by the spectators, float riders will toss flowers to anxious onlookers. Over 100,000 flowers will eventually be thrown onto the streets from each of the participating floats.
Trinidad & Tobago: Carnival
During the few days before Lent, the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago are well known for their elaborate celebration of Carnival. Carnival began during the latter 1700's, when French-Catholic plantation owners brought their Carnival traditions to this Caribbean country. The slaves had their own style when it came to participating in the fun of Carnival. When brought to the plantations, the slaves had been stripped of every connection to their African heritage. These folks used traditional Calypso style music during the festivities as a method to secretly mock their slave masters. To this day, Calypso, Soca and Steel Pan music are integral and traditional parts of the Carnival celebrating in Trinidad and Tobago.
In addition to the obvious partying and extreme merriment that goes along with Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, it is common to see extremely elaborate costumes being worn during Carnival. Dancing and Steel Pan music competitions are also part of the festivities, as well as Limbo contests.
Quebec, Canada: Winter Carnival
Since 1894, it has been a tradition in Quebec to hold a very raucous Winter Carnival in order to "Eat, Drink and Be Merry" in the days prior to traditional Lent. Now the annual Winter Carnival is a Canadian tradition that goes from the end of January until mid-February. The Quebec Winter Carnival is one of the largest winter festivals in the world. During the rather frosty festivities, there will be parades, masquerade balls, outdoor sporting events, ice and snow sculpture contests and of course, tons and tons of food and drink. "Bonhomme," the snowman that is the official mascot of the event, will also make his grand appearance. Bonhomme's likeness will also be in much of the media that goes with the festival.
The Quebec Winter Carnival is considered to be a family friendly event. Snowy parades, canoe racing, sleigh riding, and many other "winter themed" activities prove once and for all that ice and snow don't stop warm-hearts when it comes to having a good time. Besides, there is always "Caribou." Caribou is a warmed alcoholic beverage that is served in rich abundance at the Carnival in order to take the bite out of the cold and to help wintertime revelers to stay warm in often freezing temperatures.
Binche, Belgium: Carnival
The Carnival of Binche dates back as far as the 14th century. Taking place on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday, the Carnival of Binche is likely one of the most important holidays in Belgium. During the Carnival, street performers will dance and play music. It is common for the local townspeople to dress up in costumes for the Carnival as well.
Clown-like street performers called Gilles will walk the streets during the Carnival of Binche. In Belgium, it is considered a great honor to be a Gille during the Carnival. Dressed in vibrant, bright colors, the Gilles will wear masks and wooden shoes while parading and dancing through the streets. Baskets of oranges are often carried by the Gilles, and the performers will toss these oranges to (or at) onlookers who are watching the parade. The culmination of the Carnival festivities is marked with the Gilles dancing in full regalia to music and drumbeats that old tradition states will ward off all evil spirits.
Mardi Gras or Carnival celebrations have many varying traditions depending on where in the world you go. One thing that most every Carnival has in common, however, is an emphasis on the abundant eating of rich and decadent foods just prior to Lent. According to Christian tradition, Lent is a time of fasting and abstinence.
The Swedes are no different than other countries around the globe when it comes to celebrating the time before Lent. "Fettisdaggen" (meaning Fat Tuesday) is the time when Swedish folks will take full advantage of the opportunity to indulge in delightful treats and enjoyable foods that must be given up during the period of Lent. One of the better-known Swedish indulgences is called "Semla." Semla is a bun or pastry made from white flour that is filled with almond paste and freshly whipped cream. The Swedes have made this favorite treat part of the traditional fare that is consumed and looked forward to during the celebration of Fettisdaggen.
United Kingdom: Pancake Day
We love a little bit of history. The United Kingdom's celebration of the days prior to Lent may pale in comparison to the festivities found in New Orleans or Rio. The fact that some of their old rituals have been around for centuries has to mean something and for this we give them credit. Prior to Lent, the United Kingdom celebrates Pancake Day or it is sometimes called Shrove Tuesday.
Shrove Tuesday has its roots deep in an ancient pagan holiday that used to be celebrated along with the passing of the seasons. Thousands of years ago before the arrival of spring, pagan worshippers believed that there was a battle between the god of the winter and darkness and the god of fertility and springtime. In order to assist the god of the spring and help him to win the battle, the locals would eat pancakes. They believed that eating pancakes would create power, light and warmth and thus expedite the warmer weather. Once Christianity began to spread throughout the European countries, many of these old pagan rituals were grandfathered into the new Christian holidays and celebrations to make adjusting to the Christian life easier on the locals. Pancake day was adapted into the celebrating and revelry that commonly occurred in the days prior to Lent and has been a pre-Lent tradition ever since.
Pancake Day is obviously a day to celebrate and eat pancakes--lots and lots of pancakes. Other ways of marking this festive day have also become a part of the tradition. For example, in some cities in the UK, they have pancake races. What in the world is a pancake race you make be asking? Well, in a pancake race, runners will line up with an actual pancake in a frying pan held in their hand. As they run the race route, the person will flip the pancake while racing to the finish line.
English pancakes are very thin, much like crepes, and are usually served rolled up, and then dusted with sugar.
In Denmark, the Shrovetide celebration or "Fastelavn" is strikingly similar to Halloween. In fact, Fastelavn has been referred to as the "Nordic Halloween" because of the common features that this holiday shares with Halloween. Fastelavn is celebrated on the Monday or Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday. Because of the Protestant Reformation hundreds of years ago, over the years this holiday has become less and less religious and more about just having fun.
In ancient times during Fastelavn it was common practice for young men to carry a bunch of sticks in order to give a playful flogging to any girls met while out on the street. As time went by, it became a new tradition for children to playfully flog their parents during Fastelavn. Beating black cats out of a barrel was also an ancient practice that occurred during the days prior to Lent. Modern day sensibilities have changed the practice of beating cats out of a barrel to a much kinder, gentler practice. Nowadays, children will beat a barrel filled with candy until the barrel breaks open and the candy spills out.
On Fastelavn, (much like Halloween) Danish children will dress up in costumes and trek door to door. Once at someone's doorway, the children will offer up a Shrovetide song. Here is one version of a Fastelavn song that has been used: (translated into English)
"Shrovetide is my name, Buns I want. If I get no buns, I will make trouble. Buns up, buns down Buns in my tummy. If I get no buns, I will make trouble."
The song is a little reminiscent of the singsong trick or treat line that is often cheerfully used by American kids at Halloween! The buns referenced in the song are called Fastelavnsboller. These traditional buns are served during Shrovetide and are very similar to a cream puff.
Venice, Italy: Carnival
What sets Venice, Italy apart from all the other Mardi Gras or Carnival celebrations throughout the world, is the importance placed on the tradition of wearing masks. Venice is well known for masks during the carnival, and some of these masks can be considered literal works of art. There are many different types of masks that are worn during Carnival, but you can bet that pretty much everyone is wearing one. Half-masks, full masks, grotesque masks, elaborately detailed masks, and silly masks--you name it, in Venice you will find it.
The tradition of wearing masks goes back to the 13th century when the caste system was in place, and some sorts of naughty behavior could jeopardize one's position in society. All these problems could be solved by being incognito when one wanted to do some heavy celebrating--thus, masks became the norm and many enjoyed the idea of wearing them. As the years went by, wearing of masks during the rather extreme festivities of Carnival became an integral part of Carnival tradition. Today's carnival masks are made with a wide variety of materials including gold leaf, gesso, leather, porcelain, feathers, and beads.
Carnival in Venice is filled with parades, masquerade balls, a wide variety of entertainment as well as many masked parties. Shops filled with masks are in abundance, so any Carnival attendee's, who may need to shop for one, will have many from which to choose. (Many of these masks would also make fantastic souvenirs!) During the Carnival celebration, most revelers will wear a costume. Each day there are contests for the best costume and of course, the "la maschera piu bella" (the most beautiful mask.) People in extremely elaborate costume regalia will head to the streets of Venice in hopes of winning one of the prestigious costume contests--or at the very least, hoping to be photographed.
Barranquilla, Columbia: Carnival
The second largest Carnival celebration in the world is celebrated in Barranquilla, Columbia. Beginning on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and ending on the following Tuesday, Columbia's version of Carnival is the largest folk festival in the country of Columbia.
Each year, a Queen is elected to sit beside King Momo and rule over the festivities. On the opening day of the Carnival, a proclamation is read to all spectators. This opening statement essentially commands everyone to dance, be festive, party mightily and have a great time, period. Hey, in Columbia, those are the rules.
The Carnival begins with a six-hour parade of majestic floats, called "The Battle of the Flowers," which is presided over by the Queen and King of the Carnival. The Queen will toss flowers out to the onlookers. The parade also includes a wide variety of other performers including marchers, costumed groups, folk dancers, dance groups, musicians and even fire breathers.
Other festivities of the Columbian Carnival include masquerade balls and many parties. At the end of the Carnival, a symbolic burial of Joselito Carnaval will be held. Joselito is the embodiment of the joy of Carnival, and when Carnival ends, that's the end of Joselito as well. The theme of the Carnival in Barranquilla is "Quien lo vive es quien lo goza." Translated this means, "Who lives it, is who enjoys it." It looks like it would be pretty hard to not enjoy a party like this one.
In Germany, what you call your Mardi Gras holiday has everything to do with where you live. Karneval is celebrated in the Rhineland areas. Fastnacht is celebrated in Western Austria, Zurich, and Luxembourg. Fasching is what you will call your holiday if you are in Austria, Bavaria, and Saxony.
In some places in Germany, Carnival celebrating will begin on November 11, at 11:11 am. The usual beginning of the Carnival season occurs on January 6, which marks Epiphany, another traditional religious feast day.
Fasching, is a very old holiday celebration that has been part of German culture since the 13th century. The word Fasching means "the last serving of alcohol before Lent."
Karneval is a newer celebration, having its roots in the 17th century. The word Karneval likely means "away with meat."
The word Fastnacht means, "eve of the Lent." Thus, you can see that although the name of the celebration and specific German customs may vary, essentially the meaning of the party is the same. One last party before Lent!
No matter where you go in Germany, Mardi Gras celebrating will include eating lots of traditional German foods and consuming alcoholic beverages. Many German revelers will wear costumes and traditional style Mardi Gras masks in the true Mardi Gras spirit. Parades, masquerade, and costume balls are other popular activities throughout Germany during Mardi Gras. "Fat Thursday" is often marked with great feasting. Popular German foods for indulging during Mardi Gras include a wide variety of pastries, meats and sausages. Women are given permission to cut off the neckties of men. The men will be rewarded with a kiss when the tie is cut off and will continue to wear it, along with a smile of course.
No matter where on the globe you go to celebrate, it's obvious that Mardi Gras has become a cultural phenomenon throughout the entire world. From our homeland in the United States to countries far and wide, it seems that people have one very important thing in common--there's always a time and a place for a good party. Mardi Gras will offer the perfect excuse to do just that! Carnival. Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras. Shrove Tuesday. Pancake Day. Fastnacht. Fettisdaggen. It doesn't matter what you call it, because when it comes down to it, it all means the same thing: Let the good times roll!
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