The Insider’s Guide to Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday”, is the highlight of celebrations in numerous cities around the world. Many know of the holiday’s traditions involving beads, dancing, and food, but less know about its history and origin.
Thousands of people, for thousands of years, have gathered together on the waning days of winter to celebrate. Though their justification has changed as well as their traditions, the inherent celebratory atmosphere that surrounds this period of every year is older than any living thing or written history that still walks the planet.
From the Western Steppes of Asia to South America, down to Ethiopia, all of Christendom marks this period as a time for consumption and revelry. Masks, dancing, parades all have their roots in ancient tradition – and are still the highlights of many a lifetime. We are going to cover a brief history of these traditions, as well as what you can expect should you decide to partake. For more on this topic Enjoy Brett Halladay’s ‘Mardi Gras Madness’ on Geeker.
The History of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras is simply the French-speaking world’s adaptation of the Italian and Spanish world’s Carnival. These Southern European regions that never switched over to Protestantism held on to this Catholic tradition and, while it may seem strange to associate religion with a holiday based around dance, drink, and debauchery, the history proves this connection to be a rather straightforward one.
This holiday dates back to the ancient Greek celebration of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine, and likely has its roots back to the original agricultural settlements of humanity (more on this in a bit). Once the Romans were Christianized, many of their ancient holidays were adapted into the new Catholic church. This led to the Christians adopting the festivals that took place at the end of winter, amongst many others.
The reason many people in the ancient world celebrated at this time, is that it fell at the time when the food they had stored for winter would soon become inedible, and the harvests of the new year were still a bit away. The celebration theoretically is based on an agrarian society indulging themselves with the food that is set to go bad, and simultaneously preparing themselves for the lean months (what would eventually evolve into lent). Hence the name Fat Tuesday – the day where you eat everything you can before it rots.
The celebrations evolved over the centuries, with each country creating and perpetuating their own traditions. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival may have the same roots and may technically be the same celebration, but their cultural differences are immediately evident.
Mardi Gras in the United States dates back about 300 years, to the French Colonies in the Louisiana region. New Orleans was the capital of these colonies and remains to this day the flag carrier of many French colonial traditions, including Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras Outfits
The Mardi Gras costume takes its cue from Renaissance Italy, which influenced the courts of France, which in turn left their mark on Louisiana. You can see the clear renaissance influence in the popular masks and costumes sold by the thousands every year in costume shops. Traditional Mardi Gras costumes have a loose religious significance, but have an overall focus on color, symbolism and anonymity.
The famous tradition of Mardi Gras beads first appeared in the late 1800’s as glass necklaces thrown out to the crowds. Though they have become a staple of the celebrations now, and are usually made of plastic, there isn’t much more history behind them other than they became a huge hit with tourists.
I know in my home growing up there was a wine bottle draped in these beads, a souvenir from my parents trip to New Orleans. How they went about earning those beads is anyone’s guess. I try not to think about the specifics. If you are lucky enough to experience Mardi Gras, you may find yourself subject to all kinds of tasks and dares in the hunt for more beads.
Mardi Gras Food
The food of Mardi Gras is typically traditional Cajun food with a bit of a holiday twist. Crawfish and cayenne pepper assault the senses and leave a lasting impression on those who experience such a feast. Gumbo, King Cake, and Red Beans are just a few of the unique delicacies you’ll find in the French quarter. Many of the Mardi Gras foods harken back to the purpose of pantry cleaning the holiday was inspired by, while many more are a combination of American flavoring and French ingredients.
Experience Mardi Gras for Yourself
Mardi Gras comes from a tradition thousands of years old, and remains one of the most popular events in the Western World. The unique combination of costumes, revelry, food and dancing has left a lasting impression on millions of people.
A genuine enjoyment of Mardi Gras can only be experienced in person. The smells, the sights and the food can only be done so much justice in a blog. If you have any interest in these Mardi Gras traditions or celebrations, you owe it to yourself to pay New Orleans a visit this Fat Tuesday.