The streets are crowded; people line the sidewalks in anticipation as zydeco music plays in the distance. Floats idle at the starting point decorated in splashes of green, blue, and purple while riders make last-minute adjustments to costumes. A female voice hushes the chatter of the crowds. She yells, “laisser le bon temps rouler!” Suddenly, music, lights, dancing, and floats all come alive; the Queen of the Carnival has just proclaimed “let the good times roll!”
Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, is a celebration of many things. From its pagan roots as a celebration of the renewed fertility of the earth to marking the beginning of Lent in Christianity, Madri Gras has come to represent various cultural and religious histories. Mardi Gras originated a a celebration of the coming Spring and its renewal of the land. Disguises or wearing clothes of the opposite sex were used as protection against evil spirits that were believed to roam the land. These practices were embraced by early Christianity as a means for release from the hardships of winter. Costumes became more elaborate, often invoking images of the devil or parodies of the upper class and the behavior of excess became so intense that in 1511 England passed an act denouncing disguises and wearing “visours” (masks). Mardi Gras was essentially abolished in England between 1649 and 1660.
Italy, the epicenter of Mardi Gras carnivals during the eighteenth century, celebrated with masked balls, extravagant processions, street entertainments, parades, and ostentatious costumes. Students from the French Academy were instrumental in organizing masquerades during the carnival between 1730 and 1740. Although clergy continually condemned carnival celebrations as pagan and idolatrous, the remainder of Europe carried on with the traditions.
Although the origins of Mardi Gras stem from Europe, no other city is more identified with Mardi Gras celebrations than New Orleans, Louisiana thanks to French settlers. Although much of Louisiana was under Spanish control in the late 1760s, New Orleans was founded by and remained predominately French. Because of the city’s French upbringing, Mardi Gras celebrations were tradition by 1803 when Louisiana was purchased and incorporated into the United States. On February 27, 1827 the city of New Orleans held it’s first carnival celebration when costumed and masked students paraded and danced through the streets. It was not until 1857 that the first truly organized Mardi Gras parade graced the streets of New Orleans thanks to a secret society known as the “Mistick Krewe of Comus.” Over the years, the Mardi Gras carnival has increased the size and elaborateness of floats, music, decorations, “throws” (such as the infamous bead necklaces), and costumed participants. The festival has also ballooned from a one day event into week-long celebrations, and occasionally lasting even longer. Although many tourists equate Mardi Gras with Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, no parade has graced that area of New Orleans since 1979 when the streets were deemed to narrow to navigate.
To learn more about Mardi Gras or to check out other awesome resources,
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History Channel. “New Orleanians take to the streets for Mardi Gras.” History Channel, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/new-orleanians-take-to-the-streets-for-mardi-gras (accessed February 24, 2012).
“Mardi Gras.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (November 2011): 1. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 24, 2012).
Ribeiro, Aileen. “THE OLD AND NEW WORLDS OF MARDI GRAS.” History Today 36, no. 2 (February 1986): 30. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 24, 2012).