What is Mardi Gras?

What is Mardi Gras?

Translated from the French, Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday." In short, it's the last day before the traditional Catholic Lenten fasting season leading up to Easter Sunday. For those cities that celebrate it – most famously New Orleans, Louisiana – Mardi Gras means feasts, multiple parades, elaborate costumes and parties. Though the celebration is defined by religious parameters, its roots stretch back to before Christianity.

What is Mardi Gras? Origin
Some scholars trace Mardi Gras' roots to the ancient Roman Lupercalia festival, which was held in mid-February. Like many other pagan holidays, early Church leaders incorporated elements of the celebration into the new faith rather than risk alienating converted followers. As Catholicism spread across Europe, so did the Mardi Gras celebration.

What is Mardi Gras? Coming to America
By the Middle Ages, Mardi Gras, or "Carnival," had become a major holiday in France, and early French explorers brought the tradition to the New World when establishing settlements in their explorations of the Mississippi River. With its strong French roots, New Orleans naturally evolved into one of the premier Mardi Gras destinations in the world.

What is Mardi Gras? Religious roots
In many cities and countries around the world, the Mardi Gras season starts well before Fat Tuesday. Traditionally, it kicks off on the Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas on January 6, also known as Twelfth Night or Three Kings Day, celebrating the arrival of the three wise men and their gifts to the baby Jesus. The season ends promptly at midnight on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a season of fasting and abstinence leading to Easter Sunday. Some Christian sects measure the Lenten season differently, but most mark it for 40 days.

What is Mardi Gras? Eating a calf
The name "Fat Tuesday" comes from the tradition of eating a slaughtered calf on the final day of Carnival. These days, though, that definition has expanded to include feasting on pretty much any rich fatty food.

What is Mardi Gras? Around the world
Mardi Gras or Carnival is celebrated in many cities around the world besides New Orleans, including Montreal, Quebec, Canada; Nice, France; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But many small towns and municipalities celebrate Mardi Gras as well, including the tiny community of Rubonia, Florida. The Universal Studios Florida theme park also throws a Mardi Gras celebration on weeknights from February to April, featuring parades and concerts by national acts.

Photo by howieluvzus on Flickr

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