Mardi Gras is the culmination of the European Carnival season, and the Latin “carne vale” means “farewell to the flesh.” The phrase “Mardi Gras” is a reference to the richer, fatty consumed on the day preceding Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season of abstinence.
Post-Mardi Gras tradition required abstinence from meat and dairy products. In days before refrigeration, Christians traditionally gave up meat and dairy products in order to prepare for the "Great Fast" that accompanied the 40-day season of Lent.
Mardi Gras got its European origins in 1582, after Pope Gregory XIII officially listed it on the calendar before Ash Wednesday. It didn’t make it to the U.S. until the 1600s, when the LeMoyne Brothers, Pierre d’Iberville and Jean Baptiste de Bienville, defended France’s claim on Louisiana.
The Carnival celebration is tied to Christmas, as it really starts with the Epiphany, also called Twelfth Night, twelve days after Christmas. One of its signature delights, the King Cake, also has ties to Christmas, as it traditionally contains a small plastic rendition of a baby, intended to represent baby Jesus, hidden inside.
Supposedly, the King Cake, which hearkens back to the 12th century, is baked in a circular fashion in order to represent the routes that the three wise men took in order to visit Jesus and avoid Herod. In the days preceding plastic, a bean or a coin was hidden inside the cake, intended to bring good luck to whomever found it. In the present, the person who finds the plastic baby is supposed to buy the King Cake for the following year’s Mardi Gras party.
Beyond those connections to Christmas, Carnival gets its origins, like Christmas, in pagan festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia and Lupercalia. Festivalgoers at these celebrations, like Mardi Gras, feasted and masqueraded.
The most prominent Mardi Gras celebrations beyond Europe (Nice, France and Cologne, Germany) are held in Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, and other French-Catholic coastal communities (such as Mobile) in the Southern U.S.—where masked revelers take to the streets and society balls.
Most people tend to think that Mardi Gras began in New Orleans. However, the celebration in Mobile dates back to 1703, and New Orleans was not even founded until 1718. Fat Tuesday is today a legal holiday in Mobile, after Mobile Carnival Association successfully lobbied for holiday status a few years after it was formed in 1872.
Nevertheless, most people will still associate the annual fête with the Crescent City.
In New Orleans, the party tradition began with the French in the late 1600s, following the arrival of the aforementioned explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville. His men arrived 60 miles south of New Orleans, naming the spot Pointe du Mardi Gras on the eve of the holiday.
Unfortunately, the Spanish government took over the city in the 1700s, banning Mardi Gras celebrations. The ban stayed in place even after the U.S. government took ownership, but revelry resumed in 1827. In 1837, the official colors of Catholic-rooted tradition of Mardi Gras were selected: purple as a symbol of justice, green as a symbol of faith, and gold as a symbol of power.
Thus, Mardi Gras brings together two worlds: the spiritual and the secular. Even though I grew up a Protestant, I still love celebrating it—especially when it involves delectable seafood dishes and traditional King Cake. The main point, no matter what, though, is to have a good time. As the French-based citizenry say down in New Orleans: “Laissez les bon temps temps roulez,” or, translated, “let the good times roll.”
(Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and has served on the board of directors at Corinth Theatre-Arts. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.)