As the carnival season approaches, there is much speculation on whether Mardi Gras will happen or not. This year we celebrate the tradition of Mardi Gras on March 1. As most know, Mardi Gras is a time of celebration and partying. Why don’t we remind ourselves of the history of Mardi Gras and clear up some unknowns about Mardi Gras, such as “why is it in New Orleans?” or “why are the colors purple, green, and gold?”
Also known as Carnival or Carnaval, Mardi Gras is a Christian holiday spanning hundreds of years. Mardi Gras is celebrated worldwide, with New Orleans, Venice, and Brazil playing host to the holiday’s favorite traditions, drawing thousands of tourists and revelers every year. This celebration dates back to pagan festivals celebrating spring and fertility. When Christianity arrived, religious leaders decided to incorporate these traditions into the new faith in Rome, and this would be an easier task than abolishing them altogether. As a result, Mardi Gras became a prelude to Lent, and as Christianity spread to other countries such as France, Germany, Spain, and England, so did the new tradition.
In the middle ages, people began celebrating the tradition of the Three Kings, who brought gifts to the baby Jesus on Twelfth Night (the end of Christmas and the beginning of the Epiphany). Along with gifts, a special kind of cake became a custom to eat for the occasion. Initially, just a ring of dough, the king cake has taken many forms over the years. The most popular form is the braided pastry laced with cinnamon
In France, the day before, Lent would be called Fat Tuesday. The word Mardi is derived from the French language meaning Tuesday, and Gras meaning fat. The name is appropriate because people would indulge in all the rich, fatty foods in the days leading up to Lent. Milk, eggs, lard, and cheese remained in their homes in preparation for the several weeks of only eating fish and other ways of fasting; therefore, this tradition was called Carnival or Carnaval in Medieval Latin carnelevarium means to take away or remove meat.
The French explorers, Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville landed near the port of New Orleans. They held a small celebration on March 3, 1699, and dubbed their landing spot Point du Mardi Gras. New Orleans increased in their French settlements and started defining the holiday with street parties, masked balls, and lavish dinners in the decades that followed. When the Spanish took over New Orleans in 1803, they abolished the rituals, and the bans remained until Louisiana became a state in 1812. On Mardi Gras day in 1827, students sewed colorful costumes and danced through the city’s streets. Ten years later, the first recorded parade started a tradition that has lasted to today.
In 1857, a secret society of New Orleans business people called Mystic Krewe of Comus organized a torch-lit (flambeaux) Mardi Gras procession with marching bands and rolling floats. These floats marked the beginning of other krewes joining in the Mardi Gras holiday. In 1872 when the Russian Grand Duke Alexis came to New Orleans, the newly found Krewe of Rex chose the colors of the duke’s royal house for the beads that the krewe members would throw into the crowd of Mardi Gras revelers. Purple stood for justice, green stood for faith, and gold stood for power. The idea was to toss the beads to those in the crowd who showed these traits; the people who caught them were said to have good luck for the coming year. These colors were also added to the king cake, one of the most iconic parts of Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street is known for booze, debauchery, and bead throwing. While it can be harmful and ugly, there is still much good that comes from it, and it is a big part of our culture here in Louisiana. It is a tradition that has stood the test of time, and we look forward to celebrating the holiday this year with its return that will.