With a celebration as vibrant and memorable as Mari Gras, you'd be hard-pressed not to know about the grand parades and huge parties. Yet it's entirely possible to be familiar with the pageantry of the day and not know anything about the true history of Mardi Gras. Perhaps you're aware of its relationship to Easter or that it's also celebrated in numerous other countries around the world, and you might have even baked a king cake or two. But the where, when, and how of Mardi Gras's history might still be elusive, which is why we're here to help.
Before Lent 2021 kicks off, equip yourself with some useful facts about Fat Tuesday and the season that precedes it. We’re sure that by the end, you’ll be itching to book yourself a ticket on the next flight to Louisiana to be a part of all the enticing and exhilarating Mardi Gras traditions. This year, we'll have to settle for virtual Mardi Gras activities. In the meantime, read up on some Mardi Gras history and find out how this purple, green, and gold bash started in the first place.
Why do we celebrate Mardi Gras?
You can trace the roots of Mardi Gras back thousands of years, all the way to pagan spring festivals. The day has similarities to the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. Once Christianity came to Rome, religious leaders tried to blend pagan traditions with Christian traditions for a smoother transition. What resulted was a festival where people drank, feasted, danced, and partied before the abstinent and somber period of Lent began.
However, some experts disagree and say that this festivity actually began as a response to the Catholic Church banning sex and meat during Lent. They say this then lead to people partying and indulging as much as they could before Lent started. In this narrative, experts believe that Church leaders encouraged the rumors of pagan roots in an effort to quell the festivities.
Some don't realize that while Mardi Gras is always the Tuesday before Lent, the actual season begins in January. Three Kings’ Day, which falls on January 6, is not only the end of the 12 days of Christmas, but it is also marks the beginning of Carnival.
Where did Mardi Gras originate?
While the holiday could have pagan Roman roots, it didn’t become known as “Mardi Gras” until it reached France and then spread throughout Europe. In England, it became known as Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day, which is still popular today (you can imagine what they eat). European colonists later brought the huge celebrations to the Americas, where it became Carnival Tuesday in Caribbean nations.
When did Mardi Gras start in America?
In 1699, Mardi Gras is said to have made its way to North America, thanks to French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville. He settled down near present-day New Orleans and brought the tradition with him.
Where the first official celebration actually happened, however, is up for constant debate. Both Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans, Louisiana, are said to have hosted the first Mardi Gras. Some say that Alabama holds the title on a technicality—the city was officially founded over a decade before the Big Easy.
Regardless of which city held the event, it’s known that the festivities had become common practice by the 1730s. In 1837, New Orleans hosted its first Mardi Gras parade.
What does Mardi Gras mean?
In French, Mardi means “Tuesday” and gras means “fat.” That’s why the day is also referred to as Fat Tuesday. The word originated in France and was what people used to describe the day before Ash Wednesday, when they would binge on rich foods such as meat, eggs, milk, and cheese before Lent began.
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