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Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras, or French for “Fat Tuesday” is one of the most well-known events in the Christian calendar. It is observed on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and is considered to be the one last celebration before the period of Lent, a time for piety and penitence, begins. An integral part of the pre-Lent Carnival celebrations, Mardi Gras traces its roots back to medieval Italy, where the beginnings of the modern day tradition were born. In fact, Carnival and Mardi Gras are almost synonymous. Today, Mardi Gras is celebrated both traditionally and commercially, and has become a thriving event for both locals and tourists all over the world. The Rio Carnival in 2012 had a record breaking attendance of 2.2 million people on its opening day (1).

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The word Carnival is said to derive from the Latin words “carni vale” which mean “farewell to the flesh”, a name that is befitting, since this is the last occasion for people to enjoy the decadence and celebration before the forty-day period of Lent begins. A number of traditions and customs are associated with Mardi Gras, from the masquerades and parades, to the rich food and grand parties that take place in public locations. The festival is celebrated in very different ways across the nations of the world, but for one and all, Mardi Gras represents a time for celebration and joy, before the beginning of Lent.

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A colorized post card from the 1904 Mardi Gras on Canal Street in New Orleans, LA.

The Origins of Mardi Gras

The origins of Carnival have been disputed in several conflicting theories. Some people claim that it was a product of the changing seasons of the Christian calendar, and was meant as a late winter festival to welcome the spring. Others believe that the festival was celebrated on the few days that were added to the Christian lunar calendar to make it coincide with the solar calendar, which were, technically, outside of the regular calendar year. This gave people from all social classes an excuse to revel, disobeying traditions and societal norms. Many have even suggested that the roots of Mardi Gras lie in ancient Roman paganism, of which historical records speak of the festival of Lupercalia, a grand celebration to mark the beginning of a forty day fasting period that seems similar to the modern day Lent. However, the first accurately recorded instance of Carnival as we know it today, was in Venice, Italy, where the victory of the Republic of Venice (known as the Serinissima Repubblica) over the Patriarch of Aquileia (an ancient Roman city in the North of Italy) was celebrated in public squares in the city, with dancing, music, and masked revelry. The tradition of this celebration eventually trickled across Europe, first to Spain, Portugal, and France, and eventually made its way to the colonies of these nations in Latin America and other parts of the world, where it achieved a distinct local flair. Each of these countries developed its own traditions and celebrations, but the underlying roots of the festival remained the same across nations.

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Mardi Gras in Paris, France, in 1878.

Different Celebrations Around the World

Mardi Gras is celebrated in different ways around the world, the common element being a huge party, and a lot of indulgence before the beginning of Lent. However, it is interesting to see how the countries of the world celebrate the festival. For example, while the most famous Carnival of Rio de Janeiro is generally celebrated with spectacular parades, costumes, and performances, the Mardi Gras celebrations in Belgium are more traditional, with people dressed in folk costumes. This is followed by an immense orange pelting session, which happens in the main public squares. The oranges are said to symbolize fertility, and are thrown at the crowds. Differences in dance styles also occur, with the Brazilian floats putting on performances of samba, versus the popular Colombian celebrations showcasing different schools of cumbia. In Trinidad and Tobago, Mardi Gras takes more of a sinister tone, with the participants in the parade caked in chocolate, mud and paint, dressed like devils and goblins. Denmark, too, follows the strange tradition of the local children waking their parents up by flogging them with bundles of sticks. Children also roam around the streets, knocking on doors and asking for goodies, similar to Halloween trick-or-treating. In the Carnival of Nice, the show stopping event is the battle of the flowers, where hundreds of thousands of flowers are thrown into the crowd. And visitors are treated to plump, warm Russian pancakes, known as blinis in the public spaces of Russia.

Common Traditions and Customs

Mardi Gras Cuisine

One of the main customs of Mardi Gras is the consumption of fatty, rich foods, since these are no longer consumed during the forty day period of Lent, which follows. It was believed that this tradition arose more as a result of practicality rather than simple decadence, as the food would otherwise go bad afterwards. Hence the locals would consume all of this food on the same day. Some of the traditional foods consumed include pancakes, fried dough, pastries and eggs. In England, Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday as it is locally known, is celebrated with an annual Pancake Flipping race, in which participants run with pans in their hand, flipping a pancake as they complete the course. Several Mardi Gras celebrations have even developed their own unique style of cuisine. For example, in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is typically associated with a variety of Creole and Cajun delicacies straight from the heart of its culture, such as seafood gumbo, shrimp etouffee, jambalaya, and more. One of the heartwarming family traditions of the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration is the cutting of the King Cake, a sugary Danish style dough that is iced with yellow, green and purple frosting, the traditional colors of the festival. The colors represent power, faith, and justice respectively, and are always markedly visible in the New Orleans Carnival celebrations. Inside the cake is placed a tiny figurine which represents the infant Jesus. When the cake is cut, whoever gets the slice with the figurine inside it is obliged to perform certain duties or tasks and may get some special privileges.

Masquerades

The tradition of masks developed in the Carnival of Venice, where revelers wore masks to disguise the social class that they came from, so that they could engage in all forms of celebration with abandon. The Venetian mask makers, or mascherari were renowned and revered in society, and spent years perfecting their craft, developing several different styles and colors to suit different occupations. Masks were traditionally made of glass, leather, or porcelain, but contemporary variations can also be made of plaster or even paper. In the Venetian Carnival, masks were usually matched with beads and costumes of similar colors. Many of these traditional styles of masks have endured over the years and are often referenced in the modern media, in films, books, and art. Over the years, the masking tradition became an important part of the celebrations, so much so, that it is now one of the compulsory criteria for participation in the New Orleans celebrations. Masquerade parades are one of the highlights of the festival, the degree of intimacy offered by the masks dependent on the country in which the masquerade is taking place. For example, at traditional “touloulou” dances in French Guiana, the rules demand that the women be completely anonymous and disguise themselves in elaborate costumes and masks, and that the men remain without a costume.

Parades and Floats

The development of Mardi Gras over the years as a commercial festival is evident from the increasingly grand public parades that have become an important part of the celebrations. These parades generally take place over the course of a few days during the festival, and attract millions of visitors and revelers to partake in the celebrations. They are often professionally organized, and regulated by the local law enforcement to make them more manageable. Professional dancers, celebrities, and trained musicians accompany the giant floats that host the spectacular performances.

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The floats can cost up to millions of dollars to create, and are beautifully designed according to various themes. Usually, they are sponsored by professional performing arts schools, or local institutions. The parades are also a great source of revenue for the countries that host them, due to the vast numbers of people they attract. The Brazilian Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, for example, generated an estimated $850 million in revenues in 2012. (2) Different traditions exist in the parades from country to country, such as the “King of the Carnival”, an elected leader to preside over the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations, the traditional musical styles of the performances, like the samba in Brazil, and the satirical choirs known as the chirigotas in Spain.

Beads and Toys

The tradition of throwing colorful beads and toys to the revelers in the parade has existed since the late 19th century, though it is mostly specific to the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations. These little trinkets, known as Mardi Gras “throws” became prevalent in the late 19th century, when the King of the Parade, known as Rex, began to toss them into the crowds of revelers as gifts. Besides cheap plastic beads, small toys, and plastic coins called doubloons are also popular Mardi Gras throws. The people who throw the beads from the balconies are from local social organizations known as krewes, and depending on the krewe, one can pick up all kinds of little souvenirs. One of the well-known Social Clubs of New Orleans, called the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, for example, throws hand painted coconuts into the crowd.

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King Zulu, 1974, in New Orleans, LA.

The traditional glass Mardi Gras beads, which once were produced in Japan and Czechoslovakia, have now been outsourced to China for mass production, though in recent years glass beads are witnessing a retro revival. Another custom that has been observed in New Orleans is the exchange of beads and trinkets for the baring of women’s breasts. Though strictly speaking, this is not a tradition, but more of a corruption of the old custom, it is still fairly common to see this happening in tourist areas like the French Quarter.

Criticisms Against the Festival

As can be expected with such a festival of decadence and debauchery, Mardi Gras has always had some outspoken critics. Right from the Middle Ages, when the local authorities declared the celebrations to be disorderly and against social norms, to present day contentions, like the liberal nature of the festival, and the number of accidents that take place in the chaos of the parades. Police and other crime fighters claim that the festival encourages a high number of minor crimes, such as theft, assault, and the consumption of illegal substances. A number of right-wing bodies denounce the festival on grounds of it being too liberal, and against traditional values. For example, the Sydney Mardi Gras is an annual LGBTQI parade that is attended by thousands of people, which has come under a lot of fire for being “Anti-Christian”. Other criticisms of the festival are the number of injuries that take place in the parades. Each year hundreds of people are injured by the passing floats, or suffer minor wounds as a result of the milling crowds. While the law enforcement does its best to keep the crowds under control, it is a difficult job. However, as the festivals have become more regulated over time, there has been an observed decrease in crime rates, and better facilities for injuries, which is definitely an improvement. (3)

The Future of Mardi Gras

While the critics of Mardi Gras may speak out against the festival, there is no doubt that the contribution of the festival to local culture and economy is undeniable. For example, the annual Mardi Gras celebrated in New Orleans was estimated in 2009 to have a direct economic impact of $145 million, and an indirect impact of $322 million on the city’s coffers (4). Though the celebrations might be too wild for some, and there are often complaints of public disorder, it is clear that the tradition of Mardi Gras will continue, and that each country will strive to make the celebrations even more spectacular each year. Even New Orleans saw the revival of its beloved Carnival parade after the disastrous havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in 2009. It seems that for the revelers, the festival holds too special a place in their hearts, and really is their last opportunity to celebrate before shutting down completely for Lent. As they would say in New Orleans, “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” or “Let the good times roll!”

References


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