Mardi Gras is the time of the year that people of all denominations come out and celebrate. Some of the largest celebrations draw crowds from different parts of the world, all eager to take part in the weekend-long parades and revelries. Mardi Gras has a reputation as a debauched celebration, sometimes used as an excuse to party to excess. One has to wonder, do the participants know why they are celebrating? Are thy familiar with the history of Mardi Gras?
The History of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras is said to be a variation on an ancient Roman celebration, Lupercalia. It is said that that celebration took place to honor the God of agriculture and fertility. Mardi Gras is the culmination of the carnival season which starts 12 days after Christmas. This ancient tradition was adopted and adapted by the church as a way to convert pagan worshipers to Christianity. As the Christian movement spread across Europe, so did the now conformed celebration. Many of the regions that began to take part in the revelries input their own traditions. Lupercalia was known as the last party before the Lent season begins for the Catholic religion. Lent is the 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Traditionally, during this time, Catholics abstain from a number of things, including eating meat. During Mardi Gras, people would celebrate and binge on all the meat, eggs, milk and cheese in their homes before Lent began.
Mardi Gras comes to America
Mardi Gras was first introduced to the United States by French explorer Sieur d’Iberville. He landed in a part of the Louisiana territory in 1699. The first Mardi Gras celebration was held on March 3, 1699, reportedly coinciding with the time the French celebrate Mardi Gras. He named his point of entrance into the territory Point du Mardi Gras. As time went on, the Mardi Gras celebrations grew more “debauched”. Out of fear that the celebrations would be outlawed, several businessmen came together and formed the first krewe for the celebrations. The Mistick Krewe of Comus was the first known such krewe, formed in 1757.
In 1837, the first recorded New Orleans parade took place. Following the parades, traditionally, balls would follow where the celebrations would last through the night. In 1871, the Twelfth Night Revelers began to present a young woman with a golden bead hidden in a king cake. The young woman that had the golden bead would be pronounced as the Queen of Mardi Gras. A king cake was always present at Mardi Gras celebrations to honor the magi that went to visit Christ during epiphany.
In 1872, Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia came to New Orleans, the Krewe of Rex hosting the parade to mark the occasion. He was dubbed king so that he could receive a royal welcome and thus began the tradition of having the King of Mardi Gras. During the Duke’s visit, his colors were also introduced as the official colors for Mardi Gras; purple for justice, gold for power and green for faith. As time went past, the celebrations in New Orleans became more popular and indulgent. When the Spanish took control of the Louisiana territory, they abolished the celebrations until it became a state in 1812.
Louisiana is the only state where Mardi Gras is a legal holiday. Thousands of people belong to approximately 60 krewes. The krewes still plan the parades and the balls that take place during that time. Mardi Gras is a french term that means ‘Fat Tuesday’, which is the culmination of the carnival season. Ash Wednesday is the following day, marking the beginning of the Lent season.