Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, refers to events of the Carnival celebration, beginning on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday, which is known as Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, reflecting the practice of the last night of eating rich, fatty foods before the ritual Lenten sacrifices and fasting of the Lenten season.
Related popular practices are associated with Shrovetide celebrations before the fasting and religious obligations associated with the penitential season of Lent. In countries such as the United Kingdom, Mardi Gras is also known as Shrove Tuesday, which is derived from the word shrive, meaning “to administer the sacrament of confession to; to absolve.
Some think Mardi Gras may be linked with the ancient Roman pagan celebrations of spring and fertility such as Saturnalia, which dates back to 133–31 BC. This celebration honored the god of agriculture, Saturn. It was observed in mid-December, before the sowing of winter crops. It was a week-long festival when work and business came to a halt. Schools and courts of law closed, and the normal social patterns were suspended.
On the Julian calendar, which the Romans used at the time, the winter solstice fell on December 25. Hence, the celebration gradually became associated with Christmas.
The festival season varies from city to city, as some traditions, such as the one in New Orleans, Louisiana. In Mobile, Alabama, Mardi Gras–associated social events begin in November, followed by mystic society balls on Thanksgiving, then New Year’s Eve, followed by parades and balls in January and February, celebrating up to midnight before Ash Wednesday. In earlier times, parades were held on New Year’s Day. Carnival is an important celebration in Anglican and Catholic European nations.
While not observed nationally throughout the United States, a number of traditionally ethnic French cities and regions in the country have notable celebrations. Mardi Gras arrived in North America as a French Catholic tradition with the Le Moyne brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, in the late 17th century, when King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France’s claim on the territory of Louisiane, which included what are now the U.S. states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and part of eastern Texas.
The expedition, led by Iberville, entered the mouth of the Mississippi River on the evening of 2 March 1699 (new style), Lundi Gras. They did not yet know it was the river explored and claimed for France by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1683. The party proceeded upstream to a place on the east bank about 60 miles (100 km) downriver from where New Orleans is today, and made camp. This was on 3 March 1699, Mardi Gras, so in honour of this holiday, Iberville named the spot Point du Mardi Gras (French: “Mardi Gras Point”) and called the nearby tributary Bayou Mardi Gras. Bienville went on to found the settlement of Mobile, Alabama in 1702 as the first capital of French Louisiana. In 1703 French settlers in Mobile established the first organised Mardi Gras celebration tradition in what was to become the United States. The first informal mystic society, or krewe, was formed in Mobile in 1711, the Boeuf Gras Society. By 1720, Biloxi had been made capital of Louisiana. The French Mardi Gras customs had accompanied the colonists who settled there. Knights of Revelry parade down Royal Street in Mobile during the 2010 Mardi Gras season.
In 1723, the capital of Louisiana was moved to New Orleans, founded in 1718. The first Mardi Gras parade held in New Orleans is recorded to have taken place in 1837. The tradition in New Orleans expanded to the point that it became synonymous with the city in popular perception, and embraced by residents of New Orleans beyond those of French or Catholic heritage. Mardi Gras celebrations are part of the basis of the slogan Laissez les bons temps rouler (“Let the good times roll”). On Mardi Gras Day, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the last parades of the season wrap up and the celebrations come to a close with the Meeting of the Courts (known locally as the Rex Ball). Other cities along the Gulf Coast with early French colonial heritage, from Pensacola, Florida; Galveston, Texas; to Lake Charles and Lafayette, Louisiana; and north to Natchez, Mississippi and Alexandria, Louisiana, have active Mardi Gras celebrations.
Galveston’s first recorded Mardi Gras celebration, in 1867, included a masked ball at Turner Hall (Sealy at 21st St.) and a theatrical performance from Shakespeare’s “King Henry IV” featuring Alvan Reed (a justice of the peace weighing in at 350 pounds!) as Falstaff. The first year that Mardi Gras was celebrated on a grand scale in Galveston was 1871 with the emergence of two rival Mardi Gras societies, or “Krewes” called the Knights of Momus (known only by the initials “K.O.M.”) and the Knights of Myth, both of which devised night parades, masked balls, exquisite costumes and elaborate invitations. The Knights of Momus, led by some prominent Galvestonians, decorated horse-drawn wagons for a torch lit night parade. Boasting such themes as “The Crusades,” “Peter the Great,” and “Ancient France,” the procession through downtown Galveston culminated at Turner Hall with a presentation of tableaux and a grand gala.
In the rural Acadiana area, many Cajuns celebrate with the Courir de Mardi Gras, a tradition that dates to medieval celebrations in France.
St. Louis, Missouri, founded in 1764 by French fur traders, claims to host the second largest Mardi Gras celebration in the United States. The celebration is held in the historic French neighborhood, Soulard, and attracts hundreds of thousands of people from around the country. Although founded in the 1760s, the St. Louis Mardi Gras festivities only date to the 1980s. The city’s celebration begins with “12th night,” held on Epiphany, and ends on Fat Tuesday. The season is peppered with various parades celebrating the city’s rich French Catholic heritage
Mardi Gras, as a celebration of life before the more-somber occasion of Ash Wednesday, nearly always involves the use of masks and costumes by its participants, and the most popular celebratory colors are purple, green, and gold. In New Orleans, for example, these often take the shape of fairies, animals, people from myths, or various Medieval costumes as well as clowns and Indians (Native Americans). However, many costumes today are simply elaborate creations of colored feathers and capes. Unlike Halloween costumery, Mardi Gras costumes are not usually associated with such things as zombies, mummies, bats, blood, and the like, though death may be a theme in some. The Venice tradition has brought golden masks into the usual round of costumes.