Today is officially Mardi Gras, aka Fat Tuesday, with colorful celebrations taking place all around the globe. The most famous of these in the U.S. is no doubt the huge bash they hold in New Orleans, Louisiana. Other cities with famous Mardi Gras celebrations include Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Quebec City, Canada; George Town, Cayman Islands; and Mazatlan and Sinaloa, Mexico. Mardi Gras marks the end of the Carnival season, which actually has its roots in Christianity. Fat Tuesday falls the day before Ash Wednesday, which can fall anytime between February 4 and March 10, depending on the date of Easter. In Christian tradition, Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent which consists of 40 days of fasting, a mirror of the 40 days and nights Jesus Christ spent fasting in the desert. Traditionally, no parties and celebrations were held during the Lenten period and rich foods were not consumed. Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras day, was thus the last night in which observers would eat meat, dairy, fats and sugar. As those goods would likely not still be safe to eat by the time Lent ended 6 weeks later, communities would gather for a large party in order to consume all the “indulgent” food. It’s those gatherings that are believed to have evolved into the Carnival season. MardiGras is thought to have arrived in North America as a French Catholic tradition, probably brought by the Bienville brothers in the late 17th century. King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France’s claim on US territory, which now includes the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The history books tell us on March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans, and named it “Pointe du Mardi Gras” after his men pointed out it was the eve of the festive holiday. That same night, they celebrated as part of their own Catholic practice. New Orleans was established in 1718 by Bienville and by the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans, but it looked quite different than it does today, usually just consisting of neighborhood gatherings that included lots of food and dancing, with partygoers wearing costumes and masks. In the early 1740s, Louisiana’s governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, organized elegant society balls, which became the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today. The parades of today came about in 1856, when a group of businessmen organized a “secret society”, aka a “krewe”, in order to throw the city’s first formal parade. The magnificent floats and all the pomp and theatrics of today’s parades are the work of the city’s many krewes, which now number around 100. Mardi Gras is such a part of the Louisiana’s heritage, it was declared a legal state holiday in 1875. From what I understand, the population of New Orleans more than doubles in the week before Mardi Gras as people from all around the world arrive to participate in the city’s giant party!
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