Origins and Customs of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras, also called Fat Tuesday, is probably the premiere festival found in America. People from all over the country and all over the world attend this Catholic-based celebration. Although it was established in the 1800s, the history and customs of Mardi Gras go back much further. Today, Mardi Gras continues to evolve as a religious, cultural and economic event that draws thousands of people to New Orleans to see the exciting sights and sounds that make this festival so unique.

Origins Mardi Gras

Though many associate Mardi Gras with Catholic traditions, the Mardi Gras celebration actually dates back thousands of years and originated with the pagan celebrations of spring and fertility. The Romans had similar festivals at the same time of year for their gods. With the arrival of Christianity, church leaders decided the best course of action was to incorporate Mardi Gras and Carnival and similar celebrations into the new faith of Christianity. By adopting the popular local traditions it became an easier task for various cultures to accept priests and listen to their teachings. Mardi Gras became a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. As Christianity spread across Europe and eventually to the ‘New World’ of the Americas, so did Mardi Gras spread across the globe.

Mardi Gras and Carnival both arise from the same source, a time of celebration, eating of the ‘fat’ or meats that could not be stored for the 40 days of Lent (Lent would be when Catholics were expected to give up rich foods, pleasures, and so forth to commemorate Christ’s fasting and prayer before his crucifixion). ‘Carnival’ is Italian and derived from ‘Carne Levare’ meaning ‘to remove meat’. As Mardi Gras became embraced in different countries and cultures, various traditions were added and modified.

Mardi Gras Krewes
The word ‘krewe’ is used to describe the specialized clubs that put together the elaborate balls, costumes and floats for parades. ‘Krewe’ is thought to be an affectation of a word used during medieval times to refer to an exclusive club. In fact, membership in some of the krewes is limited to the family and close business associates that join together to create their own individual items for the Mardi Gras celebrations. Membership fees to some of the krewes can be in the thousands of dollars. Other krewes are open to the public and have more reasonable fees and require members to work on floats and other activities as part of their contribution to the group – and most krewe members love being part of the group and a special part of Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras Balls
Masked balls were an Italian custom during Renaissance times that made its way to France and England, then ultimately to America where masks and costumes have become an integral part of Mardi Gras. Renaissance balls featured a variety of historical and improvisational characters, all masked elaborately to hide the wearer’s identity as they engaged in irreverent activity during the festival period – a tradition that continues today.

Mardi Gras Masks
Masked balls allowed the wearers to escape the restrictions of their social class and expected behavior in order to enjoy a period of unfettered freedom during festival time. Nobility and commoners could mingle freely together, making it a truly egalitarian celebration. At some points in history, this custom was forbidden, for example in 1339 masks were illegal to wear at night. Later, in 1797, the King of Austria banned Carnival was outlawed in 1797 and masks were banned. As Carnival and Mardi Gras began to resurge in Italy and Venice, Carnival and the wearing of masks was again banned by the by the fascist government in the 1930s and it would not be until 1979 that Venice would again see the masked celebrants of Mardi Gras return. The masks of Mardi Gras in New Orleans (and at the Carnival in Brazil) have become a symbol of the true spirit of these celebrations.

King Cakes
Another well-known icon of the Mardi Gras celebration is the King Cake. These are small custard or brioche cakes in the shape of crowns that contain a bean or tiny representation of Baby Jesus. These cakes are used to choose the Mardi Gras Queen and her court. The cakes are found widely in New Orleans bakeries throughout the Mardi Gras season.

The ‘Throws’
The throwing of tokens, beads, doubloons, toys and trinkets to the crowd originated with medieval Twelfth Night festivals in the late 1800s and was adopted by Mardi Gras and Carnival. Wealthy individuals would show their generosity by tossing coins and gifts to the crowds during the Twelfth Night festival. This tradition was later adopted by the krewes to threw goodies to the crowd during the Mardi Gras parade. During Mardi Gras, even after the parade, it is not uncommon for krewes and people in general to show generosity by throwing or sharing coins, tokens, cups, trinkets, beads and so forth to enhance the joyous mood of the festivities. Today, the colorful beads, tokens and doubloons are some of the most prized throws which people take home from Mardi Gras.

The Custom of ‘Flashing’
The contemporary custom of flashing bare breasts or other body parts in exchange for thrown beads is not a part of historic Mardi Gras rituals. This is rather a new ‘custom’ that arose from young people coming to Mardi Gras celebrations (no doubt due to the abundance of drinking that goes on during Mardi Gras, especially in New Orleans). Many older city residents find this perversion of the spirit of Mardi Gras lamentable – especially since flashing gets to much media attention. However, in true Mardi Gras spirit, the celebrates just take it in stride – maybe flashing is something they intend to give up for Lent.

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