Edited repost from the archives.

Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, is celebrated around the world in a variety of ways. The traditions of Mardi Gras, the day before the penitential season of Lent begins, have been around since the beginning of Christianity. Although some historians believe that the celebration of Mardi Gras took over earlier pagan holidays regarding spring and fertility, other historians believe the way we celebrate Mardi Gras evolved on its own. Although they all agree that part of the plan included eating up the richest stores in a family’s pantry, often food that they preserved in November, before it went bad.

Regardless, today Mardi Gras is celebrated all around the world, most famously in Brazil, Venice, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Although I think it’s a safe assumption that when people think about Mardi Gras they picture New Orleans. That’s because the very first celebration of Mardi Gras in early colonial America took place on March 3, 1699. When the French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville landed near New Orleans, they held a shrovetide party to prepare for Lent. They even named their landing spot “Point du Mardi Gras”. 

For many decades the people of New Orleans and other nearby French settlements celebrated the holiday with street parties, masquerade balls, and elaborate meals. These parties lasted until the Spanish seized control of New Orleans and the outlying areas. The Spanish practiced a more conservative form of Catholicism and outlawed Mardi Gras completely. The ban on Mardi Gras continued until 1812, when Louisiana became a state. 

It wasn’t until 1827 when a group of students, who’d recently returned from Paris, dressed up and danced and partied through the streets of New Orleans that people began to take in interest in the holiday again. But it took another ten years before the first official New Orleans Mardi Gras parade took place. Since then, New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions have happened annually–until 2020 and 2021 when the Covid-19 Pandemic halted all the fun. Although the 2024 season is up and running. 

But it was in 1857 when a secret society of New Orleans businessmen (Mistick Krewe of Comus) formed a Mardi Gras procession of torches, marching bands, and rolling floats, that the parades took on the appearance and tone that we’re all familiar with today. Since that parade, Krewes have been spearheading masquerades and parades throughout the entire carnival season which begins after January 6th. While Mardi Gras is only a legal holiday in Louisiana, it is still celebrated in other U.S. cities as well as cities around the world. Every country and city has its own traditions, and most take place in areas with historically large Catholic populations.

Venice has masquerade balls which date back to the 13th century. The children of Denmark dress up and collect candy from their neighbors (kind of like our Halloween). France has parades and large balls throughout the season. Germany also has parades and costume balls, while Brazil celebrates with European, African, and native traditions. Regardless of how you celebrate, I hope you all have a safe and fun Mardi Gras as well as a soul-renewing Lenten season. And if you want to make a traditional King Cake to celebrate the day, I have a wonderful recipe for you here. 

Happy Mardi Gras, and laissez le bon temps rouler!

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