When you think of Mardi Gras people usually think of New Orleans Louisiana. This was not always true. So how did New Orleans become the home of the Greatest Free Show On Earth? Well let’s go way back to the beginning of Mardi Gras.
The Origins Of Mardi Gras
Even though Mardi Gras is perceived to have its roots in the Roman Catholic religion, it actually dates back to the days of ancient Rome. In the middle of the month of February, the Romans celebrated a holiday they called Lupercalia. The god Lupercus was the god of fertility, agriculture and pastoral shepherds and the festival was in his honor. Carnival which is considered synonymous with Mardi Gras is derived from the Latin expression meaning “farewell to the flesh”. This holiday was very similar to the Mardi Gras we know today. It had a festival almost circus atmosphere. There was also the festival of Saturnalia that seemed to have some effect on the origins of Mardi Gras. This holiday was also a time of jubilation that occurred around the end of December. The king was burned in effigy and was made to look ugly in appearance. This is where some of the traditions of masking seem to have been derived. Some of the colors of Mardi Gras, purple, green and gold may have come from this festival.
When Rome converted to Christianity, a common practice was to take pagan holidays and incorporate them into church holidays. Lupercalia was an example of that approach. So Lupercalia became Mardi Gras. This period was designed to be a last fling of partying, merriment and good times that came before the period of fasting, prayer and penance called Lent. During the Lenten period the faithful say good bye to the pleasures and indulgences of the flesh. This period lasts from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday or 40 days.
This tradition became a major holiday in the city of Paris during the Middle Ages when it spread across the continent of Europe. During medieval times lords held huge carnivals prior to Lent to honor the enrollment of new knights into the service of the local lord or baron. In France, this was a particularly raucous time.
Next how Mardi Gras made it to America.