Also called Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras refers to
events of the Carnival celebrations, beginning on or after the Christian
feasts of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) on January 6th and culminating on the day before
Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday," reflecting the
practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual
fasting of Lent, the 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter
The celebration and Christian holiday dates back thousands of years to
pagan celebrations of spring and fertility. Though it was a pagan ritual,
Christian religious leaders incorporated these popular local traditions
into the new faith when Christianity arrived in Rome. From Rome, the
tradition spread along with Christianity, to Venice, Italy to France, and
soon, all over Europe. And, as Europeans began to colonize other
continents, their traditions followed them.
Traditionally, in the days leading up to Lent, parishioners were
required to fast for periods or abstain from certain types of food, most
commonly red meat. Practices varied from giving up all animal products, to
permitting only bread, to eating only once per day, etc. In ancient times,
in the days leading up to Lent, many would binge on the soon-to-be
forbidden foods, leading to the term "Fat Tuesday." The word “carnival,”
may also be related to pre-Lent festivities as in Medieval Latin, "carnelevarium"
means to take away or remove meat.
Coupled with gluttony, general excess and debauchery also
became part of the Mardi Gras season. Over the years popular practices
during Mardi Gras also included wearing masks and costumes, overturning
social conventions, dancing, sports competitions, parades, and more.
Fasting during Lent was more prominent in history as it is today, as
most people give up something for lent, not necessarily food related.
In the United States Mardi Gras
began when King Louis XIV sent Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean-Baptiste
Le Moyne de Bienville to defend France's claim on the Louisiana territory
Louisiana and part of eastern
Texas) in the late
The expedition entered the mouth of the
Mississippi River on March 2, 1699
and proceeded upstream to a place on the east bank about 60 miles
downriver from where New Orleans is today. The next day was Mardi Gras, so
they named the place Point du Mardi Gras. The group went on to found Fort
Louis de la Louisiana (Fort Conde) in 1702 and the settlement that grew up around it --
Fort Louis de la Mobile (Mobile, Alabama) became the first capital of
French Louisiana. The following year, the settlers established the first
organized Mardi Gras celebration tradition in what was to become the
United States. In 1711, French settlers in Mobile organized the first
informal mystic society, or krewe, called the Boeuf Gras Society and
organized song, food, and dance for the festivities as well as a
Papiér-maché bull that was pulled down Dauphin Street in what is believed
to have been the first carnival “parade” in North America .
By 1720, Biloxi
had been made capital of Louisiana and the French Mardi Gras customs
New Orleans was
founded by Bienville in 1718 and the capitol of Louisiana Territory was
moved there in 1723. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New
Orleans. In the early 1740s Louisiana's
governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls,
which became the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today. The
earliest reference to Mardi Gras "Carnival" appears in 1781 and that same
year the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of
hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans. Soon,
Mardi Gras became synonymous with the city in popular perception.