Last updated on March 8th, 2023 at 06:10 am
For those who think Mardi Gras is a weeks-long celebration of debauchery, drunkenness, and nudity–you’re right. But only half right.
At the heart of it, Mardi Gras is also a Christian holiday traced to pagan spring and fertility rites dating back thousands of years that has become a popular cultural phenomenon worldwide.
And although Mardi Gras is today most closely associated with New Orleans, Louisiana, it is observed in hundreds of cities in more than fifty countries.
Tracing Mardi Gras’ Pagan Roots
Mardi Gras (or “Fat Tuesday” as it is translated from the original French) most likely began as the pagan festival of Lupercalia (or Februa), a fertility celebration dating back to the 6th Century BCE, held each February 15th dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture.
Essentially a Roman New Year orgy, Lupercalia was a bloody, violent, and sexually-charged celebration rampant with animal sacrifice, random sex, and hedonistic debauchery aimed at warding off evil spirits and infertility.
In 313 CE, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, granting Christianity—along with most Pagan religions—legal status. Christianity did not replace traditional Roman beliefs; it simply joined the pantheon.
When the Rome Empire formally became Christianized by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, most traditional Pagan holidays were retained for the sake of societal continuity but sanitized of their immoral nature.
But since the Roman Empire enveloped most of the Mediterranean region at that time, variations of Lupercalia had already spread to other countries and took on regional variations.
By the time Pope Gregory XIII made Mardi Gras an official Christian holiday in 1582, it little resembled Lupercalia of antiquity—except, perhaps, in those countries that had retained the orgiastic elements in defiance of the Church. As it turns out, many of those elements found their way to America.
The First American Mardi Gras: the Tale of Two Cities
Anyone who’s attended even one Mardi Gras in America will no doubt swear New Orleans owns it. After all, N’awlins feels kinda Mardi Gras-ish all year round.
So it will no doubt surprise some people to learn that the port city of Mobile, Alabama, founded in 1702 by French settlers, lays claim to being the first city to observe the event. And since New Orleans wasn’t founded until 1718—Mobile’s claim would seem to have merit.
Still, there are those who point to 1699 as the year the first Mardi Gras actually took place in America, when French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville landed about 60 miles south of present-day New Orleans near the mouth of the Mississippi River and celebrated the fete impromptu, as it were.
Adding to this argument is the fact that Le Moyne dubbed the spot of this celebration “Point du Mardi Gras.”
Thus, the debate continues–and likely always will.
What, Exactly, is Mardi Gras?
Beneath the amazingly imaginative costumes, stupendous floats, glittering beads, exhilarating Jazz music, and bare-bosom beauty queens, “Fat Tuesday” is part of a four to twelve-week-long Christian-related observance that, ironically, is not actually affiliated with the Catholic Church.
Technically speaking, it is considered secular despite being focused on specific dates of the Christian calendar.
In the City of New Orleans, Mardi Gras isn’t just a date; it’s a “Carnival” season. Carnival begins on January 6th (on the Feast of the Epiphany, in the Christian faith) and can last for up to twelve weeks, depending on when Easter falls that particular year. (In 2023, for example, it falls on Sun, April 9th.)
Although any number of events may be scheduled throughout Carnival season, major events are usually concentrated about two weeks before and through Shrove Tuesday (aka “Fat Tuesday”), the day before Ash Wednesday; the start of Lent in the western Christian tradition.
During this time, there is usually one major parade per day (weather permitting), with many days having virtually non-stop parades. In any event, the largest and most elaborate parades occur during the last five days of the Carnival season.
Why “Fat Tuesday”?
Shrove, or “Fat Tuesday” (the literal translation of “Mardi Gras”) is historically the day Christians prepare for Lent by using up the fatty foodstuffs they have on hand. (Lent is 40 days before Easter dedicated to fasting and abstinence, imitating Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry.) This day is also known as “Pancake Tuesday” because many people choose to make pancakes to use up the fatty foodstuffs needed to prepare them.
Although each item in the pancake preparation is traditionally assigned a religious component (egg, creation; flour, staff of life; salt, wholesomeness [as in “salt of the earth”]; and milk, purity), most people likely chose to make pancakes for more indulgent reasons: they contain all the rich foodstuffs they’re not be permitted to consume for the duration of Lent.
Essentially, they gorge on rich foods to emotionally sustain them through long abstinence.
The History of New Orleans Mardi Gras
Although the date of the first organized celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is debatable, the 1730 account of one Marc-Antoine Caillot (a young clerk sent to Louisiana by the French Company of the Indies) mentions a celebration with music and dance, mask-wearing and costumes—including cross-dressing.
A snippet from another account from 1743 states that the custom of Carnival balls had already been established by that year.
The first bona fide New Orleans Mardi Gras occurred in 1833 when a rich plantation owner named Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville took the initiative to raise money to fund an official, city-wide Mardi Gras celebration.
And while no description of that particular fete survives, a detailed description from the 1835 event recorded by author James R Creecy in his book, Scenes in the South, and Other Miscellaneous Pieces, reveals that by that year, the celebration was well on its way to becoming as we know it today:
“All of the mischief of the city is alive and wide awake in active operation. Men and boys, women and girls, bond and free, white and black, yellow and brown, exert themselves to invent and appear in grotesque, quizzical, diabolic, horrible, strange masks, and disguises. Human bodies are seen with heads of beasts and birds, beasts and birds with human heads; demi-beasts, demi-fishes, snakes’ heads and bodies with arms of apes; man-bats from the moon; mermaids; satyrs, beggars, monks, and robbers parade and march on foot, on horseback, in wagons, carts, coaches, cars, &c., in rich confusion, up and down the streets, wildly shouting, singing, laughing, drumming, fiddling, fifeing, and all throwing flour broadcast as they wend their reckless way.”
Two additional dates of historic importance in New Orleans Mardi Gras lore are 1875, the year the State of Louisiana declared Mardi Gras a legal state holiday, and 1889, the year of the first documented reference of women exposing their breasts at the event, reported by a Times-Democrat reporter who observed, “the degree of immodesty exhibited by nearly all female masqueraders seen on the streets.”
Parades, Floats, Boobs, Jazz, and Costumes
After nearly three centuries of hosting the celebration, New Orleans has become synonymous with Mardi Gras—and vice versa.
Each year an estimated 1.5 million visitors from around the world converge on the city to join the Mardi Gras festivities. And whether you go for the costumes, the music, the food, or the pageantry of the parades, it’s virtually impossible to remain a passive bystander.
Most visitors find themselves getting caught up in the excitement–becoming wild-eyed revelers even when they didn’t intend to!
If you visit Mardi Gras during the final two weeks (leading to Ash Wednesday), you’ll be treated to virtually non-stop parades—which are considered the very heart of Mardi Gras.
That means spectacular floats, costumes beyond the imagination, and marching bands, the likes of which you’re unlikely to encounter anywhere else in the country.
Along the parade routes are bars and restaurants you can stop in and enjoy food and drinks while watching the parades pass by—or you can join the throngs of excited people along the streets and get up-close and personal with the street performers.
Central to the parades are what experienced Carnival goers call “throws,” shiny strings of beads or doubloons (shiny plastic coins) thrown from the floats or from one of the dozens of balconies that contribute to New Orleans’ Old World charm.
The tradition is for tourists to collect as many of these keepsakes as they can during the festivities. This tradition has spawned the popular, complementary tradition of women revealing their breasts in hopes of being rewarded with more beads or coins. (Mardi Gras is not for the prudish.)
Although parades are at the heart of Mardi Gras, nothing is more integral to the excitement than music, particularly the variety New Orleans is world-renowned for: Jazz.
Music in the parades, music on the streets, music in the bars, music in the restaurants, music from the balconies and rooftops. If you’re not a Jazz aficionado when you arrive, you will be by the time you leave. And if Jazz isn’t your thing, fear not, there are plenty of bars and cafes offering Blues, Afro-Cuban, Rhythm’ n’ Blues, and Rock & Roll.
Day or night–everywhere you go—you can expect to encounter people in costume or dressed in purple, green and gold—the official colors of Mardi Gras.
If not in full, often outrageous costume, many revelers will be wearing masks—and you can expect total strangers to approach you on the street to shock, frighten, or attempt to make you smile. And make no mistake, their intent is to drag you into the endless party that is Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras Around the World
Mardi Gras in Italy is perhaps most closely tied to ancient Pagan festivals such as Lupercalia—with a variation of Carnival celebrated in a number of Italian cities.
One of the most famous is the masked balls and parades of Venice. Through the centuries, authorities have tried to restrict the hedonistic elements of the celebration–with little success. Masks are probably the best-known element of Venetian Mardi Gras, known for their extraordinary flamboyance.
Brazil’s Mardi Gras runs from the Friday before Ash Wednesday until noon Ash Wednesday, when Lent officially begins. The celebrations differ from one city to the next, but virtually all include colorful, musical parades organized by various local organizations.
Rio has the distinction of putting on the biggest parades in the world (according to the Guinness Book of Records), during which bystanders are invited to join in. Typical to their parades are women dressed in extraordinary costumes comparable to Vegas Showgirls—exposed breasts more the norm than the exception. As Brazil is primarily of Afro-Brazilian heritage, the music is typically variations of samba.
Mardi Gras in Russia (known as Maslenitsa) has both pagan ties (as an end-of-winter celebration) and Christian ties (as it is the week before Lent, which begins on a Monday rather than Wednesday). Also known as “Butter Week,” “Cheese Week,” or “Crepe Week,” Mardi Gras in Russia is likely one of the most conservative Mardi Gras observances in the world.
Mardi Gras in German-speaking countries (known as Karneval or Fastnacht) is perhaps the longest celebration period, officially starting on November 11th (at 11:11 am, to be precise) and running through winter to Ash Wednesday.
In Dusseldorf, Germany, the big day of celebration is Rosenmontag (“Rose Monday”), the Monday before Ash Wednesday. On this day, there are parades and live music, comedy, and dance routines performed by local carnival groups. Many dress up in traditional costumes if they are part of the parades.
With Mardi Gras/Carnival celebrated in more than fifty countries in hundreds of cities worldwide each year, one could spend a lifetime discovering Mardi Gras. However, in many regards, Mardi Gras exists in a time apart from time, neither then nor now. That may be why it endures and fascinates like nothing else.
History.com., “Lupercalia,” Lupercalia: Facts, Pagan Rituals, Valentine’s Day – HISTORY
Britannica, “Lent,” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lent
Christianity.com., “What Is Fat Tuesday and Is It Part of Mardi Gras?” What is Fat Tuesday and Is It Part of Mardi Gras? (christianity.com)
Cote, Sebastien, A Company Man, https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/48681936/1833-4933-1-SM-libre.pdf
Creecy, James R. Scenes in the South, and Other Miscellaneous Pieces. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=XgO1NAUvBxcC&oi=fnd&pg=PA7&dq=James+R.+Creecy,+Scenes+in+the+South,+text&ots=zOR6MkfjqY&sig=3AqCZ8WKwJZttcxFtY8u4Hiv2og#v=onepage&q=James%20R.%20Creecy%2C%20Scenes%20in%20the%20South%2C%20text&f=false
“Mardi Gras, New Orleans,” Mardi Gras History | Mardi Gras New Orleans
“Carnival and Mardi Gras Traditions Around The World,” Carnival and Mardi Gras Traditions Around The World • Curious Cuisiniere