What is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday".  The name comes from the ancient custom of parading a fat ox through Paris on this day.  The ox was to remind the people that they were not allowed to eat meat during Lent.  Lent runs from Ash Wednesday thru Easter Sunday.

Mardi Gras moves.  It can be anywhere between February 3rd and March 9th.  The date depends on when Easter falls.

French people who came to the United States brought the custom of Mardi Gras with them.  The most famous festival in the US (and perhaps the world) is at New Orleans in Louisiana *wistful sigh*-- I've always wanted to go, not necessarily for Mardi Gras, but just to see it.

But Mardi Gras parades happen throughout the world.  Biloxi in Mississipi, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Nice in France, Binche in Belgiun and Viareggio in Italy are just a few examples.

The Tuesday that Mardi Gras falls on is also known as Shrove Tuesday.  The name comes from the custom of confessing on the day before lent.  Shrove means "to be forgiven one's sins."

Mardi Gras Customs:

In Southern Italy, people dress up in costumes and put on an ancient play during Mardi Gras

In Rio de Jeneiro, people dance in the streets.

In Nice, France people wear giant masks in the Mardi Gras parade (it looks like a bunch of walking heads with tiny bodies).

In Binche, Belgium people dress in colorful clown costumes (the clowns are called gilles) The clowns wear bunches of ostrich feathers on their heads and dance in the streets.  They carry baskets of oranges which they throw to the watching crowds.

For most of you, Mardi Gras customs are likely of the New Orleans variety.  During the parade, everyone dresses up in costumes.  Trinkets, especially beads and doubloons, are tossed to the crowds from the parade floats.  The Mardi Gras colors are purple, green and gold.

Viewer contributions - a note from Leanne:

OK, as many of you know I'm Canadian.  Before I added this section to the site, I knew precious little about Mardi Gras.  The idea of anyone dancing around Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in February or March "dressed" for Mardi Gras is, quite literally, a "chilling" thought *grin*.  Anyways -- apparently there's some dispute about where Mardi Gras started and I'm certain it won't be resolved here -- I've included the viewer contributions in the order I've received them.  As long as the contributions remain friendly, I'll include the "versions" of the history of Mardi Gras in the US.  Have fun!

Lynn contributed the following info:

The modern incarnation of Mardi Gras in the U.S.  Begin in Mobile, AL in 1830, with Michael Krafft and the Cowbellion de Rakin Society.  Their Mardi Gras celebrations continued until the Civil War.  New Orleans' claims to be the origin of American Mardi Gras come from the fact that it is likely that the French & Spanish upper crust of the Louisiana celebrated Mardi Gras as part of their French Catholic heritage long before the first parade in New Orleans in 1857.

Mardi Gras resumed in Mobile after the Civil War in 1866 with Joseph Stillwell Cain, the "Tea Drinkers", and the Order of Myths, and has continued to the present times.  In general, Mobile has a more "family-oriented" Mardi Gras than New Orleans, but both can get risque.

Check out http://www.maf.mobile.al.us/recreation/mardi_gras.html  http://www.gumbopages.com/carnival-faq.html and
http://travel.roughguides.com/content/883/25046.htm for more information.

Eric contributed the following info:

Interested in teaching some history?  Below are comments of Jon Donley--mardi gras historian.... 

While "Mobile was first" is an article of faith among Mobile natives, the city does not make this claim.  Neither does New Orleans.  Both cities tap dance around the issue, because in fact, both have some bragging rights.  In fact the founding fathers of modern Mardi Gras traditions did not see it as a competition between Mobile and New Orleans, but rather as a cooperative effort between buddies.

Both cities have gone through periods when Mardi Gras almost died out, and each has been instrumental in exporting traditions to the other and keeping the fire going.  Neither New Orleans nor Mobile started Mardi Gras, of course. Carnival/Mardi Gras is a European import, celebrated long before Columbus was a gleam in his Daddy's eye.  In fact, long before it was Christianized, it was a pagan [celebration].  Much of Catholic - or formerly Catholic - Europe celebrates Carnival under one name or another, again as a season of celebration before Lent, as do many of its former colonies.

The early explorers and settlers of both New Orleans and Mobile arrived with a tradition of Mardi Gras and adapted the tradition to their new home.  Historically the first recorded celebration of Mardi Gras in what is now the United States occurred in 1699, on a Mississippi River island just downstream from modern New Orleans.  The French explorer who threw the party named the place Mardi Gras Island.  He then moved upriver and staked out the site for modern New Orleans.

Mobile skeptics say this celebration is disqualified since the city of New Orleans didn't exist, except in the explorer's dreams, but that sounds like sour grapes to us.  Mobile's first recorded celebration was in 1704.  In both areas, celebrations took place to varying extents from the very beginning of settlement, picking up additional traditions as new waves of immigrants arrived.

Partying in New Orleans, in fact, was at times out of control, which eventually brought crackdowns from the Spanish and new American governments, especially focusing on wearing masks and street events.  This brought the public celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans to a sputter in the early 19th Century.  Slowly the Creoles won back permission to expand Mardi Gras celebrations, until wearing masks and street celebrations were again legalized.

Mobile stepped into the picture in 1857, when members of the Cowbellian de Rakin Society helped blueblood New Orleans pals set up the Mystic Krewe of Comus, the pioneering parading krewe in the Crescent City.  This launched an explosion of new Mardi Gras traditions.

What Mobile can accurately claim is a nearly 300-year tradition of organized Mardi Gras celebrations, leadership in the creation of some modern Mardi Gras traditions, and exporting at least one of the most important traditions to New Orleans - the parading krewe.

By the way, you may be interested to know that Gulfport, Mississippi, also claims to have been the site of the first American Mardi Gras.  If you take the famous Ship Island excursion ride, you'll find an article from a local newspaper on the wall that claims that Ship Island was the REAL Mardi Gras Island referred to by the explorer.


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