History of Mardi GrasMardi Gras, also known as Shrove Tuesday or Carnival, annual festival marking the final day before the Christian fast of Lent, a 40-day period of self-denial and abstinence from merrymaking. Mardi Gras is the last opportunity for revelry and indulgence in food and drink before the temperance of Lent. The term Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday.”
The date of Mardi Gras varies from year to year, always falling between February 3 and March 9 . Although Mardi Gras refers to a specific day, the term often encompasses a much longer period of celebrations leading up to Mardi Gras Day. The Carnival season is marked by spectacular parades featuring floats, pageants, elaborate costumes, masked balls, and dancing in the streets.
Some scholars have noted similarities between modern Mardi Gras celebrations and Lupercalia, a fertility festival held each February in ancient Rome. However, modern Carnival traditions developed in Europe during the Middle Ages (5th century to the 15th century) as part of the ritual calendar of the Roman Catholic Church.
Today pre-Lenten Carnivals are celebrated predominantly in Roman Catholic communities in Europe and the Americas. Cities famous for their celebrations include Nice, France; Cologne, Germany; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. New Orleans, Louisiana, holds the most famous Mardi Gras celebration in the United States. Residents of New Orleans have been celebrating Mardi Gras since the 18th century. Mobile, Alabama, has a lesser known but equally old Mardi Gras tradition. Mardi Gras is informally observed in many North American cities, usually invoking the spirit of the New Orleans festivities.
Not all Mardi Gras celebrations take place in urban areas. Distinctive Mardi Gras traditions are also maintained by the Cajuns, an ethnic group that derives its culture from French Canadian refugees who settled in southwestern Louisiana during the 18th century. In rural Cajun communities, costumed revelers on horseback ride from house to house begging for ingredients to make gumbo, a thick, strongly flavored soup. Other members of the community await the riders and make preparations for a party. Around sunset, the riders make a dramatic entrance, present the crowd with the gumbo ingredients they have gathered, and join the party.