Mardi Gras is a celebration that has been practiced for thousands of years to welcome spring. Christians celebrate the event to recognize the beginning of Lent each year. The celebration occurs most frequently in areas with large Roman Catholic populations and the event is sometimes known as Carnival. The best known Mardi Gras celebrations occur in New Orleans, Brazil, and Venice.
Mardi Gras began as a pagan celebration and included the ancient Roman festivals Lupercalia and Saturnalia. As Christianity moved into Rome, religious leaders decided to mesh the pagan celebration with the church holidays, making it easier to incorporate the celebrations into the existing calendar. The partying and excess associated with the celebration was considered the precursor to the Christian period of Lent, the 40 days of penance preceding Easter. Christians used Mardi Gras as a time to binge before they had to sacrifice during Lent. They would enjoy mass quantities of eggs, milk, meat, and cheese before they began the Lenten fast. The day before Lent begins is known as Fat Tuesday because of these food indulgences.
Mardi Gras is believed to have been celebrated for the first time in the United States in 1699. The French explorers were responsible for bringing the celebration when they arrived in Louisiana, which today is still the most popular city in the United States for celebrating the event. The celebration began small, but following Louisiana’s statehood, the celebration exploded into the colorful street parade it is today. The events of Mardi Gras are so popular in Louisiana, it is the only state that considers the time leading up until Lent a legal holiday. There are popular parades in Alabama and Mississippi, but none match the wild events in New Orleans.
Though the debauchery is considered overwhelming by many who visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras, many of the best traditions of the season are still observed and are considered an integral part of the celebration. Aside from the parades and costumes of Mardi Gras, the celebration also includes king cakes, bead tossing, and doubloons. The king cake is a rich cake, usually decorated in green, gold, and purple, with a hidden charm inside. The person who receives the piece with the hidden charm receives special privileges throughout the coming year. Doubloons are small coins that are tossed from the Mardi Gras floats, along with colorful chained beads, to onlookers attending the parades and frolicking in the streets of the French Quarter.
In other parts of the world Mardi Gras is celebrated in ways that are similar to New Orleans. Pre-Lenten festivals include Carnival in Brazil and the Quebec Winter Carnival in Quebec City. Italy celebrates the time with Carnevale in Venice, which has been celebrated since the 1200s and includes masquerade balls. Germans also observe the period with parades and costume balls. In Denmark, the time is celebrated with events that resemble the Halloween celebration, but most would not recognize the popular ritual of children flogging their parents on Easter morning to bring Mardi Gras to an end.