Mardi Gras, also known as “Fat Tuesday,” has its roots in the Christian calendar as the last hooray before Lent begins. This day has become more popular in recent years as a hedonistic and raucous event, but it began as the last celebration before Ash Wednesday. This is the reason the grand celebration in New Orleans is known to end abruptly at midnight on Tuesday; it is the introduction to Ash Wednesday.
Many of the current celebrants of Mardi Gras have no idea that it is closely related to the Christmas season and in many Catholic cultures is known as Carnival Season. On the Christian calendar this is referenced as “ordinary-time” which is the time outside of the Christmas/Advent or Easter/Lent seasons. The official colors; gold to signify power, green representing faith and purple a symbol of justice, have their roots in Catholicism as well.
Mardi Gras, formerly known as Shrove Tuesday, is traditionally the final day for Catholics to indulge before the sober weeks of fasting start with Lent. It comes from the slaughtering and feasting of the fattened calf on the final day of Carnival. Pancake Tuesday comes from the need to use up eggs, dairy and fat before the abstinence of Lent begins. Mardi Gras has been a time of extravagant fun for a long time with European Christians, so much so that many have thought the celebrations stemmed from the wild springtime orgies of the ancient Romans.
Mardi Gras came to the New World in 1699 after a French explorer landed at the Mississippi River, about 60 miles south of what is now known as New Orleans. The location was named Point du Mardi Gras by the explorer because he knew celebrations were taking place in his native country that day.
Millions of fun-seekers are drawn to New Orleans every year in the United States for the grand party Mardi Gras brings. Since the French settlers arrived in the 1700s New Orleans has been known for its magnificent celebration complete with colorful parades, masked balls and of course beads. In the mid-1700s the Spanish government took over and banned the celebrations. Even after the United States acquired the land the ban continued until 1827 when the celebrations were allowed to resume. For many decades in the early 19th century masks were deemed illegal in New Orleans due to the raucous behavior of the people hidden behind the masks.
In Latin carnival derives from the words “carne vale” which mean farewell to the flesh. Just as many seasonal celebrations and Catholic holidays, the carnival theme likely has pre-Christian roots based on traditions of the seasons.
The Carnival season starts with the Epiphany which also known as Three Kings’ Day, Twelfth Night and in Eastern Churches known as Theophany. In the cultures which celebrate Carnival season Epiphany jump starts a series of parties which culminate with Mardi Gras.
Epiphany is a custom that began in the 12 century in France. Traditionally it is the time when celebrants serve the King’s Cake. In the early days there would be a bean or coin hidden inside the cake and whoever happened to find the item was declared to have good luck in the coming year. Currently in Louisiana bakers insert a small baby into the cake to represent the Christ Child and whoever gets the baby is expected to host the next King’s Cake party.
A king named Rex is crowned every year in New Orleans. Rex, the king of the Carnival, first ascended to the throne in 1872. History reports that the first Rex was the Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia who was visiting the United States. Every year the Rex Organization chooses a prominent person in New Orleans to be the new Rex; after which the mayor gives the new Rex the symbolic Key to the City.
The wearing of masks is in integral part of the culture of Mardi Gras. Masks wearing during celebrations were a way for people to escape social demands and class restraints. They allowed celebrants to be whoever they wanted and mingle with people of all classes without judgment. The law requires those riding on floats to wear masks. On Fat Tuesday, the wearing of masks is legal for Mardi Gras attendees, but many store owners ask people to remove their mask before entrance.
Is Mardi Gras traditionally a religious celebration?
Yes, traditionally Mardi Gras is a religious celebration; one that has its roots in the Christian calendar as the last hooray before Lent begins. This day has become more popular in recent years as a hedonistic and raucous event, but it began as the last celebration before Ash Wednesday. This is the reason the grand Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans is known to end abruptly at midnight on Tuesday.
By: Cherese Jackson (Virginia)