History of Mardi Gras

history of Mardi Gras

The history of Mardi Gras reaches back hundreds, if not thousands of years, depending on who you talk to. The more modern version has its origins with "Carnevale" time ("farewell to flesh" in Latin) first celebrated in Italy in 1094. As it is most places today, Carnival was a last-hurrah precursor to Ash Wednesday, the official start of Catholic Lent – the 40 of days of fasting and religious observance prior to Easter. Today, dozens of countries all over the world celebrate Carnival and Mardi Gras, almost anywhere that Catholicism had a strong influence among the early colonizers.

Give the French most of the credit, who took the pre-Lent celebration from the Italians and gave the final day its modern name – "Mardi Gras" means "Fat Tuesday" in French – and brought it to the New World. Of course, while many people still treat Fat Tuesday with its religious connotations, the celebration has evolved to have different meanings wherever its taken hold. In Trinidad and Tobago, for instance, where Carnival began in the Caribbean, Mardi Gras was originally celebrated by French immigrants, but later took shape as a celebration of African and island culture as slavery was abolished in the early 19th century and the free black population exploded (Carnival Tuesday is also only the second day of celebration there, and not the last).

It's no surprise then, that in America, what was once French Louisiana and the port of New Orleans become the premier Mardi Gras destination in the United States. Celebrated by the French, banned when the Spanish took over, then revived by the local Creole population, the festival there also dates back to the early 1800s, with the modern parade "krewe" societies going back as far as 1857. The Krewe of Rex (Krewe of the King), which still marches today, actually debuted in 1872. Since then, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has continued a largely unbroken streak of celebrations, though the festival was paused during the war years of World War I and World War II. The population of New Orleans has more than doubled in recent years during the days leading up to and during Fat Tuesday.

It's not all about New Orleans and the Caribbean, however. You can also attend Mardi Gras celebrations in Quebec City, Quebec, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, and Sydney, Australia among many others, and despite its roots one could argue that in most places, it's at least as secular as it is religious (in Trinidad it's only the second day of Carnival, not that last) – a reason to party amid the winter doldrums. But what's wrong with that? Throw on a mask, let loose, and celebrate the season.

Photo by gnuckx via Flickr

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