Most know Mardi Gras as a time where over 1 million visitors flock to The Big Easy for a few days (or more) of booze, beads, and boudin. Or, maybe you picture Rio's Carnival filled with beautiful women, samba and copios amounts of food. Either way, bright feathers, nonstop indulgence, and bizarre masks bring to mind the Christian holiday celebrating the last big party before Lent. Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival or Carnaval are all synonymous and are observed across the globe—primarily in those with large Roman Catholic populations.
A brief history of the worlds craziest feast
The origin of Mardi Gras is a bit of a debate. It's argued that the creation of Mardi Gras actually lies not in Catholicism, but in Paganism. A popular theory is that Mardi Gras is the Christian-ized version of Lupercalia. Lupercalia was/is a Pagan holiday celebrating the birth of Spring. Lupercalia was a drunken week of merrymaking held each February in Rome, after which participants fasted for 40 days. Strangely enough, the Romans donned masks, dressed in costumes and indulged all of their fleshly desires much like today. Though some will argue that the wild parties popped up only as a result of the soon abstinence from sex and meat during lent. It's no doubt, Mardi Gras is a Christian holiday and a crazy-fun-cultural-shin-dig that kicks off a season of fasting. But, like any good Christian holiday, it's probably got pagan roots that date back thousands of years to heathen seasons and fertility rites.
A few tidbits about the world's biggest hurrah
Mardi is French for Tuesday, and gras means fat. In France, the day before Ash Wednesday came to be known as Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday.” The French, are also who brought this tradition to the States way back in 1703, which is why the name stuck. It's meaning has evolved over time and has different contexts depending on the country you're in. For example, in Belgium, also called Shrove Tuesday, they eat a breakfast of oysters and champagne before parading through the street dressed Ostrich feathers to chase away winter. It's quite the sight and is rooted, like all good traditions, in folklore and gluttony.
Katrina didn't keep the Crescent City from celebrating!
In 2005, when Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, LA, a vast majority of the city was destroyed. New Orleans spends most of the year prepping for Mardi Gras designing floats etc. In 2006, the celebration continued, as usual, showing the true strength of the New Orleans community and giving the world one of the most inspiring Fat Tuesdays in history.
Laissez les bon temps rouler!! (pronounced "Lah-say le bon tom roo-lay") Cajun French for "Let the good times roll" It's the official greeting of New Orleans Mardi Gras! Of course, any Cajun will tell you this. It's specific to the region, and they are damn proud of it! Rightfully so, as it is not an expression used elsewhere in French-speaking countries.
Mask or cuffs? Your choice.
It's not just tradition to don colorful masks, in New Orleans, it's actually the law! Yep, everyone on a float must wear a mask or paint their face. This originated in that crazy-let-it-all-out party in Rome. This was to encourage people to act on and indulge in whatever they like without fear of recognition. #donttagmeinanyphotosplz
"Bataille des Fleurs."
"Bataille des Fleurs" or Battle of the Flowers is an event during Nice's Mardi Gras in which thousands of flowers are thrown from floats. (awww) Each year, over 100,000 fresh flowers are thrown! This happens roughly every other day during the two-week shindig. There are also several other floats and events involving flowers of all sorts. So. Classy. As if this weren't charming enough, Nice also has the oldest and largest party on the French Riviera! Dating back to 1294!
Mardi Gras or Carnival?
Well, they're the same, but they're not. Technically, Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday is only defined as the day before Ash Wednesday. Carnival is the season starting on Three Kings Day and ending on Ash Wednesday. However, in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is celebrated as the two weeks leading up to and ending on Ash Wednesday.
"Kiss your flesh goodbye." Carnival is loosely and colloquially translated in Latin as kiss your flesh goodbye. A literal translation will tell you it means "farewell to meat" which is also fitting!
So, where's the best party?
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Considered to be the largest, loudest and craziest festival in the world, Rio's non-stop 4-day party is where it's at. It's an explosion of color and strong Brazilian spirit. While it's celebrated as an appetizer to Lent, it's origin into Brazil is interesting! Way back in the 1700s, Portuguese immigrants brought the festival to Rio and called it Entrudo. It was celebrated with everyone throwing lime-water at each other and was mainly enjoyed by the working class. Their obnoxious costumes were initially meant to mock to clothes of the rich. New Orleans, USA French-Catholic influence galore creates what I would consider the best party in the US. Mardi Gras in New Orleans is known around the world as the ultimate sinful bash. The French Quarter spills over with tourists willing and ready to lift their shirts for some beads and Hurricane. (flashing is not required) Bellies are also full of Jambalaya and King Cake! Jambalaya is a classic Creole dish of rice, meat, and vegetables. King Cake, while made a million different ways globally, has a unique (and damn good) taste in Louisiana. It's basically, a cinnamon-sugar filled cake decorated in the colors green, purple and yellow with a little baby Jesus inside. These colors hold significance to the regional dessert as well. Purple represents justice, green represents faith and yellow is for power. The baby, if found in your piece, has many different meanings depending on who you ask! Barranquilla, Colombia This Caribean-Colombian heaven takes it's fiesta to heart. Similar to the regional use of "Laissez les bons temps rouler," Colombians have their own phrase as well. "¡Quién lo vive es quién lo goza!" or "Those who live it, enjoy it." Majority of the Carnivals focus is on traditional Colombian dances such as mapale, cumbia, salsa, and merengue. Colombia also has their own Battle of the Flowers or La Battella de Flores! Be prepared to look the part, too! Once Carnival season starts, locals and tourists alike begin to dress for the occasion! This includes an iconic red and white polka dot headband and children decked out in costumes galore even for a quick grocery trip. Nice, France As I mentioned, one of the worlds best carnival events is on the picturesque French Riviera! It's considered THE essential Carnival celebration in France and changes themes yearly. France's Carnival is also known for poking fun at society with satirical mentions of consumerism, our obsession with social media and mankinds quirks. The Bataille de Fleurs is, of course, a crowd pleaser in itself! But as if that weren't enough, there are performers from all over the world and plenty of fun to be had. Did you know, 90% of the flowers used are locally grown on the French Riviera? Venice, Italy Venetians had their first Carnival back in 1162. When Napoleon invaded Venice in 1796, he said "oh, hell no" to Carnival in fear that this would enable Venetians to conspire against him. (what a buzz kill) It wasn't until 1979 that the festivities were revived and despite this being an event where thousands flock annually, the biggest and best parties are private and invitation only. Venice is also known for its ornate masks!
Celebrating this Mardi Gras season with my sister, Madison in South Louisiana.
Whether you celebrate Lent or just want an excuse to eat and
drink your weight in whatever you like, Happy Mardi Gras!
And, of course, Laissez les bon temps rouler!!