Today, February 21st, 2023, means it is officially Mardi Gras! ♥
“Hey, mister, throw us something!”
Now, I can hear you asking it … what does Mardi Gras even mean, other than too much drinking, 100 pounds of beads draped around our necks, and not being able to find a place to use the restroom?!
Well, I’m glad you asked …
In French, Mardi means “Tuesday” and gras means “fat.”
Did that help?
We didn’t think so either 😉
Let’s try this …
Mardi Gras refers to Fat Tuesday, I know, I know, we already mentioned that, but … that means its the day before Ash Wednesday, and originally religious folks used the day to binge on rich foods, such as eggs, milk, and cheese before Lent began. This day of feasting and preparing was but a single day of celebration.
These days however, anyone who has ever attended Mardi Gras or Carnival will tell you, this celebration of magic and masks is more than a single day, it’s a state of mind.
Mardi Gras has definitely grown past it’s humble beginnings. It even helped rebuild New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. When the rest of the world may have thought those people crazy or weird for putting on the parades and parties after such a major disaster, the locals understood. They got it. This time of celebration is so deep a part of the hearts of the people there, its practically a part of their DNA. They weren’t just celebrating magic and mayhem. They were celebrating life.
Mardi Gras, as New Orleans native Arthur Hardy says, “… defines the heart and soul of our people. It is a spirit—an immortal one. It represents man’s ability to escape into dreams, to play, to laugh, and to have fun. Mardi Gras is masks, costumes, raucous fun, Cinderella balls, gluttony, love, inclusion, artistic expression, history, tradition, and new horizons.
Sounds familiar, huh? Like escaping into a world of magic and stories, books and adventures of the mind.
But how did Mardi Gras grow to become more than just a big meal before a period of fasting and repentance? Well …
Mardi Gras is a tradition that dates back thousands of years, all the way to the pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, including the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia.
LUPERCALIA Lupercalia was an ancient pagan festival held each year in Rome on February 15. Although Valentine’s Day shares its name with a martyred Christian saint, some historians believe the holiday is actually an offshoot of Lupercalia. Unlike Valentine’s Day, however, Lupercalia was a bloody, violent and sexually charged celebration awash with animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and coupling in the hopes of warding off evil spirits and infertility. According to Roman legend, the ancient King Amulius ordered Romulus and Remus—his twin nephews and founders of Rome—to be thrown into the Tiber River to drown in retribution for their mother’s broken vow of celibacy. The twins were later rescued and then adopted by a shepherd and his wife. After killing the uncle who’d ordered their death, the twins found the cave den of the she-wolf who’d nurtured them and named her Lupercal. It’s thought Lupercalia took place to honor the she-wolf and please the Roman fertility god Lupercus. In Ancient Rome, feasting began after the ritual sacrifice, and also during Lupercalia, men randomly chose a woman’s name from a jar to be coupled with them for the duration of the festival. Often, the couple stayed together until the following year’s festival. Many fell in love and married.
And while the Big Easy plays host to Mardi Gras in the U.S. with its food—King Cake, muffulettas, beignets, shrimp and grits for starters; and libations: hurricanes, Ramos Gin Fizzes, Dixie beer, café au lait—architecture, music, history, and its fair share of swamps, gumbo, ghosts, and alligators, this does not make New Orleans the only place where Mardi Gras is celebrated.
CARNIVAL HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate these popular local traditions into the new faith, an easier task than abolishing them altogether. As a result, the excess and debauchery of the Mardi Gras season became a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of fasting and penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
This means Fat Tuesday is always the day before Ash Wednesday, forty-six days before Easter Sunday which is the first Sunday after the first Full Moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. Which makes that period of time … Carnival Season!
That means along along with Christianity, Mardi Gras, also known as Carnival or Carnaval, spread from Rome to other European countries, including France, Germany, Spain and England.
Even Brazil and Venice play host to some of the holiday’s most famous public festivities, drawing thousands of tourists and revelers every year. It’s a party!
THE FIRST MARDI GRAS ON AMERICAN SOIL
In the late 17th Century, French King Louis XIV commissioned the French Canadian Le Moyne brothers to explore the mouth of the Mississippi to establish a colony in the Louisiana Territory. When their exploration party landed at the mouth of the Mississippi on March 3, 1699 it was Mardi Gras. In tribute to the holiday being celebrated that day in France, the brothers named the spot Pointe du Mardi Gras. This is the oldest place named of non-Native American origin in the whole Mississippi River valley.
THROW ME SOMETHING, MISTER
This is what you will hear if you attend the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans. The trinkets and collectibles that are thrown from the floats to people lining the parade routes are called throws! Throws can be plastic beads, glass beads, toys, cups, spears and just about anything imaginable. In 1910, Zulu Krewe began throwing coconuts or “Golden Nuggets”, which was considered a very sought after throw. After several lawsuits from parade-goers who were hit in the head with coconuts, the organization could no longer get insurance coverage in 1987 and stopped this tradition. After lobbying the Louisiana Legislature, it passed SB188, the “Coconut Bill,” which excluded the coconut from liability for alleged injuries arising from the coconuts that were handed from the floats. In 1988, then-governor Edwin Edwards signed the bill into law. Today the elaborately decorated Zulu coconut is a much-coveted collector item.
GREEN, PURPLE AND YELLOW (GOLD)
If you don’t see green, purple and yellow (or gold) when you think of Mardi Gras, then you don’t know the symbolic colors seen everywhere in NOLA. Thousands upon thousands of beads in these colors decorate the necks of the revelers every year. Purple symbolizes justice, gold symbolizes power and green symbolizes faith. Now bundle up, ignore the frigid temperatures and let some jambalaya warm you up!
EARLY EFFORTS AT SUPPRESSION OF MARDI GRAS
Mardi Gras got going in New Orleans soon after the city’s founding in 1718. The Spanish, who ruled the Big Easy from 1762 to 1800, apparently cracked down on certain Mardi Gras rituals (though documentation from that period is scarce). U.S. authorities did much the same after taking control in 1803, banning both masked balls and public disguises. Nonetheless, they eventually accepted the festival’s existence. The first recorded Mardi Gras street parade in New Orleans took place in 1837, by which time the city had transformed from a small backwater into a major metropolis. Twenty years later, six men organized a secret society called the Mistick Krewe of Comus. By holding a parade with the theme of “The Demon Actors in Milton’s Paradise Lost,” along with a lavish grand ball, Comus reversed the declining popularity of Mardi Gras and helped establish New Orleans as its clear epicenter in the United States. This year, more than 1 million visitors are expected to attend.
OTHER SECRET SOCIETIES QUICKLY FOLLOWED COMUS’S LEAD
In 1872 the Krewe of Rex and the Knights of Momus began paying for parades and balls of their own. They were followed a decade later by the Krewe of Proteus. Since these early societies were exclusively male and white, women and Black residents formed their own groups, such as Les Mysterieuses and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Dozens of krewes of all types have proliferated since then, including the science fiction-themed Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, whose name is a hybrid of the “Star Wars” character and the Roman god of wine. Despite being less than three years old, this krewe convinced Peter Mayhew, the actor who played Chewbacca in the movies, to ride in its parade last month atop a Millennium Falcon float and alongside a mascot called Bar2D2.
WHAT IS A KREWE?
“Krewe” is the term for all groups that stage balls and/or parades. They come is all shapes and sizes but all are non-profit groups funded by their membership. More than 100 exist in New Orleans—gay, straight, single gender and co-ed ones—there’s something for everyone. Some are classical, others naughty (with biting satire).
The most important part of Mardi Gras is the spirit of those that attend and keep this magic alive year after year. And as they say in New Orleans, “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” It means “Let the good times roll” in Cajun French.
Annd If someone should say that to you, the proper reply is “Oui, Cher.” Now, don’t pronounce Cher like the singer’s name, use the Cajun French pronunciation of “Sha.”
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