Masquerade balls, plastic beads, lavish parades and streets blurred yellow, purple and gold are all trademarks of modern day Mardi Gras. But the roots of the famed debauchery and seemingly bizarre traditions are for most as mysterious as the faces beneath the feathered masks.
Mardi Gras falls on the last day of the Carnival season, which is known as Fat Tuesday. This is the day before Ash Wednesday – the start of the 40-day Christian Lent season that is a period of fasting and repentance leading up to Easter.
However, the origin of Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years to pagan fertility and spring celebrations. When Christianity spread to Rome, religious leaders decided it was simpler to incorporate these local traditions of feasting and masquerade into Christianity, rather than attempt to abolish them, thus creating the tradition of excess leading up to Lent.
As Christianity expanded across Europe, so did the tradition of Mardi Gras. But it was the French who gave the day before Ash Wednesday the name Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday” because participants would binge on all the remaining eggs, cheese, milk and meat in their homes in preparation of the upcoming fasting.
Two men are to thank for bringing Mardi Gras festivities to America – French explorers Iberville and Bienville. Upon landing in what is now Louisiana, the two brothers held a small celebration in March of 1699, dubbing the location Point du Mardi Gras.
In the following decades, French settlements, including New Orleans, celebrated the holiday with masked balls, street parties and extravagant dinners. But when the Spanish took control of New Orleans, they banned the festivities, which remained in place until Louisiana became a state in 1812.
And in 1837 the very first recorded parade occurred in New Orleans. However, Mardi Gras as Americans know it today is traced back to a secret society of businessmen known as the Mistick Krewe of Comus, who in 1857 organized a torch-lit Mardi Gras procession, complete with rolling floats and marching bands. Since then, dozens of krewes have become fixtures of New Orleans Mardi Gras, hosting their own balls, parades and feasts.
Across the world, countries with significant Roman Catholic populations hold pre-Lent festivities, including Brazil’s famed Carnaval week and in Italy, Venice's Carnevale. Although this year’s Mardi Gras has just come to a close, now is the time to begin planning your very own Mardi Gras celebration in Marlborough for next season: