There are certain images that come to mind at the mention of Mardi Gras. Most involve revelers in masks dancing and drinking on the streets of New Orleans. However, there is more to Mardi Gras than just three days of drunken debauchery. History indicates that this pre-Lenten festival dates as far back as the ancient Romans.
Historians believe that Mardi Gras originated as the Roman’s February festival of Lupercalia, in honor of Lupercus, the god of agriculture and fertility. Like many ancient Roman traditions, Lupercalia soon became affiliated with the Catholic Church. The Church used it as a means of converting non-believers, and Lupercalia morphed into Mardi Gras – a period of drinking, feasting, and general merriment before forty days of penance, purging and fasting.
Like all good ideas, this one spread rapidly. In Britain, Shrove Tuesday, the day prior to Lent, is also known as “Pancake Tuesday.” Decadent feasts center around their version of the breakfast favorite. However, it is the French who took this particular holiday to new heights of indulgence and bacchanalia. Mardi Gras, the popular name for the holiday, is a French term meaning “Fat Tuesday.” The days before Ash Wednesday are filled with parades, masquerade balls, and pageants.
It was also the French who brought this holiday to North America. In 1699, a Frenchmen named Sieur d’Iberville landed in what is modern day Lousiana. Sieur d’Iberville named the spot, located very close to the modern capital of the Mardi Gras festivity, Point du Mardi Gras. North America’s very first Mardi Gras was celebrated that year, and by the mid-1800’s, the celebration was a permanent part of the city’s culture. Formal parade organizations, known as Krewes, formed, and the official colors of green, purple and gold were chosen. Each year, the floats, costumes and beads become more and more outrageous. New Orleans has become the party capital of the United States, and Mardi Gras is when it sends out invitations to all who want to try and keep up.