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The History Behind the Tradition of Mardi Gras Feast Day

Mardi Gras 2023

Mardi Gras is a Christian holiday and watershed moment with roots in pagan spring and fertility rites dating back thousands of years. Carnival, also known as Carnaval, commemorated on the day before the religious season of Lent begins in many countries all over the world, primarily in those with large Roman Catholic populations. Brazil, Venice, and New Orleans hosted some of the most prominent international holiday celebrations, attracting thousands of tourists and revelers each year. Mardi Gras traditionally held on “Fat Tuesday,” the Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Moreover, in many areas, Mardi Gras has developed into a one-week festival. Mardi Gras 2023 took place on March 1, 2023.

Mardi Gras 2023 is a celebration of the birth of spring and fertility that dates back thousands of years, including the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders decided that incorporating popular local traditions into the new faith would be a simpler task than outright abolishing them. As a result, the overabundance and perversion of Mardi Gras became a precursor to Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and penance that runs from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Mardi Gras, like Christianity, spread from Rome to other European countries such as France, Germany, Spain, and England.

Historical Background

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

On March 3, 1699, French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville landed near present-day New Orleans, Louisiana, and celebrated the first American Mardi Gras. They celebrated by naming their landing spot Point du Mardi Gras. In the decades since, New Orleans and other French colonies have celebrated the holiday with street parties, masquerade balls, and expensive meals. But even so, when the Spanish took control of New Orleans, they banned these loud and obnoxious rituals, and the prohibitions remained in effect until Louisiana became a United States state in 1812. On Mardi Gras in 1827, a group of students dressed up in bright outfits and started dancing through the streets of New Orleans, imitating the revelry they’d witnessed in Paris. The first recorded New Orleans Mardi Gras parade took place ten years later, a legacy that proceeds to the present day.

In 1857, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, a secret society of New Orleans businessmen, organized a torch-lit Mardi Gras procession with marching bands and rolling floats, setting the tone for potential public commemorations in the city. Krewes have managed to remain a regular feature of the Louisiana Carnival scene ever since. Throwing beads and other trinkets, wearing masks, decorating floats, and eating King Cake are all long-lasting traditions.

Carnival of the Mardi All over the World

Pre-Lenten festivals continue to held in many countries with sizable Roman Catholic populations around the world. Carnival in Brazil is a lively mingling of European, African, and indigenous traditions. Quebec City, Canada, hosts the massive Quebec Winter Carnival. Tourists flock to Venice’s Carnevale, which dates back to the 13th century and is well-known for its masquerade balls. The German celebration, known as Karneval, Fastnacht, or Fasching, includes parades, costume balls, and a culture that empowers women to cut men’s ties. Children in Denmark dress up and similarly collect candy on Halloween, though the parallel ends when they flog their parents on Easter Sunday morning.

Facts about Mardi Gras

  • Purple, green, and gold are the traditional colors: It is said that when Grand Duke Alexis visited in 1872, his cheering section distributed purple, green, and gold beads to the partygoers, as these were the colors of his home at the time. The three colors became associated with the celebrations and were later assigned meanings: purple for fairness, gold for authority, and green for belief.
  • Over 70 secret societies (or “Krewes”) are engaged in today’s Mardi Gras 2023 celebrations: On parade days, each Krewe constructs a float to portray its specific theme and may include a guest host to entertain the audience. The Krewe of Chewbacchus is an unusual community that integrates the lovable Star Wars character with the Greek God of wine. The King of the Krewe of Zulu in 2014 shown here.
  • Russian royalty participated in the New Orleans celebrations: Grand Duke Alexis Romanov Alexandrovich, brother of the Russian heir apparent, visited Louisiana in 1872 to join in the festivities! (A vintage image of Mardi Grace from the 1950s shown here.)


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