Happy Fat Tuesday everyone! Today is the biggest day of celebration for Mardi Gras! It’s the last day of Carnival so you know the celebrating must be grand! Grab your beads, king cakes, and costumes, and get ready to learn about the history of this colorful day, whose roots date back to times of antiquity.
Mardi Gras–A Brief History
Mardi Gras has evolved into something quite different today, but its roots actually reach as far back as the 5th century, when the Romans celebrated Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a celebration warding off evil spirits and purifying the city to promote fertility.
During Lupercalia, goats and a dog were sacrificed by priests who were called Luperci. After the sacrifice took place, the feasting began. The Luperci would cut strips of hyde from the sacrificial animals, and run through the streets, naked except for these strips of hyde. Women of the town would purposefully get in the path of the Luperci to be struck with strips of the sacrificial hydes, in order to increase their health and fertility in the coming year.
The Christianization of Europe began in the early Middle Ages. To increase the rate of new converts to the Christian Church, Christian leaders realized they needed to incorporate pagan holidays (like Lupercalia) into Christian traditions.
In medieval times the celebration of abundance and merrymaking that preceded Lent was known as Carnival or Shrovetide. Lent is the Catholic tradition of a 40 day fast, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter.
During Lent, no animal meat could be eaten while fasting, so the day before Lent was when people would feast on all of their remaining meat, dairy and fattening foods they had on hand, in order to get rid of it. In France, this day became known as ‘Mardi Gras’ which means ‘Fat Tuesday’ when translated.
By the end of the 16th century, Catholicism had spread across Europe and therefore so did Mardi Gras. When Europeans began traveling to America to colonize the ‘New World’, they brought their traditions with them, and Mardi Gras in America took on a new life.
Immigrants from both France and Canada who settled in New Orleans in the 17th century began to party excessively on Fat Tuesday and would celebrate by throwing masked balls. These masquerades were outlawed when Spain gained control of the city, which lasted until 1827. In 1857 the first Mardi Gras parade was celebrated in New Orleans. This was introduced by the ‘Mistick Krewe of Comus’ who popularized over-the-top floats and ornate costumes. Their goal was to make Mardi Gras less debaucherous while showing how it still be just as fun.
New Orleans was trying recover after the Civil War, and more “krewes” were created. The Rex Krewe created the first Mardi Gras King in 1872, a tradition which has lasted til today. Rex means ‘king’ in Latin, thus Rex is equivalent with “King of Carnival.” Rex is also responsible for the creation of the daytime parade, as well as chosing the Mardi Gras colors–purple for justice, gold for power, and green for faith.