Mar 8, 2011

Mardi Gras: "Fat Tuesday's" Old World Roots

The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is known around the world as "Mardi Gras."  It's name means "Fat Tuesday."  If you are lucky,you have experienced the joy and revelry of "Mardi Gras" at least once in your life, preferably pre-Hurricane Katrina.  I was fortunate to experience it myself as a lad of 18, and remember most of the experience, I think.  Riding on a float figures prominently in my memory, along with the well-known beads, harlequin/jester masks and general party atmosphere.

In fact, there is a rich European tradition of masked carnivals and balls similar to "Mardi Gras" that pre-dates the New World's discovery.  In the Roman world, for example, the festival of Lupercalia was celebrated. 

The exact origin of Lupercalia is a matter of some debate, and some historians argue that it is more akin to the original St. Valentine's Day-type holiday. 

Whatever the case, Lupercalia festivals were ones of great revelry for the Romans, celebrations of health, fertility and what some today might even call "debauchery."  For that reason, the ancient festival has some similarities to modern-day "Mardi Gras" where outlandish and provocative attire (or lack thereof) and behavior is common, as shown below:
 

When the Roman Empire converted to Christianity many such pagan rituals and festivals were assimilated into Christian rites rather than being rejected entirely.  "Mardi Gras" was celebrated in Paris as far back as the Middle Ages, where it was a major holiday.  Eventually, the festival made its way to the New World when the French explorer, Iberville, sailed into the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River.

On March 3, 1699, Iberville set up camp about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today. This was the day Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France. In honor of this important day, Iberville named the site Point du Mardi Gras.  It has been synonymous with New Orleans ever since.

However, "Mardi Gras" is hardly the only such festival to be celebrated around the world.  At least two other, similar festivals have equally well-known - and often infamous - reputations.  The first is the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, which is considered the largest such festival in the world.  The second is Carnivale in Venice, Italy (Carnevale di Venezia). 

Representatives photos from each of these masked festivals are shown in order below:
Carnival Rio de Janeiro



Typical Costumes Seen At The Carnivale In Venice, Italy
For more information on the history of "Mardi Gras," check out the information provided by the East Jefferson Parish here