By John Copeland for SMHA
Today is known as Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday and Carnival, all traditional names for the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. It is more commonly known as Mardi Gras, which is simply Fat Tuesday in French. No matter what its name is, the day before Ash Wednesday has long been a time for eating and merry making.
Fat Tuesday is a Christian holiday, is also known as Carnival and is celebrated in many countries around the world, mainly those with large Roman Catholic populations, on the day before the religious season of Lent begins. Today, Brazil, Venice and New Orleans play host to the holiday’s most famous public festivities, drawing thousands of tourists and revelers every year.
Ash Wednesday, which is tomorrow, marks the start of Lent, the six weeks directly before Easter. The forty day Lenten period is observed by many Christians with fasting and penitential practices. Traditionally during Lent, no parties or other celebrations are held, and people refrain from eating rich foods, such as meat, dairy, fats and sugar. These forty days of Lent, recall the Gospel accounts of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, serve to mark an annual time of turning.
Traditionally, in the days leading up to Lent, merrymakers would binge on all the meat, eggs, milk and cheese that remained in their homes. Fat Tuesday was traditionally a time to use up all the milk, butter and eggs left in the kitchen. These ingredients were often used to make pancakes, which is why in spots of the globe it is still called Pancake Day.
Across the globe, pre-Lenten festivals continue to be held in many countries with significant Roman Catholic populations. Brazil’s weeklong Carnival festivities feature a vibrant amalgam of European, African and native traditions. In Canada, Quebec City hosts the giant Quebec Winter Carnival. In Italy, tourists flock to Venice’s Carnevale, which dates back to the 13th century and is famous for its masquerade balls. Known as Karneval, Fastnacht or Fasching, the German celebration includes parades, costume balls and a tradition that empowers women to cut off men’s ties.
According to historians, Mardi Gras actually dates back thousands of years and is related to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, including the raucous Roman festival of Lupercalia. When Christianity became nascent in Rome, the early church leaders incorporated many of the popular pagan traditions, an easier task than abolishing them altogether, as a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
The word Carnival is actually rooted in these celebrations. Although its origin is disputed, as are many things in the past, folk etymologies exist which state that Carnival comes from the Late Latin expression “carne vale,” which means “farewell to meat”, signifying that these are the last days when one could eat meat before the fasting of Lent. The word “carne” can also be translated as “flesh,” suggesting “carne vale” as “a farewell to the flesh,” a meaning enthusiastically embraced by some Carnival celebrants who encourage embracing the carefree nature of the festival.
Some of the best-known traditions, including carnival parades and masquerade ball masquerading, were first recorded in medieval Italy. The carnival of Venice was, for a long time, the most famous carnival. From Italy, carnival traditions spread to the Catholic nations of Spain, Portugal, and France. From France, they spread to the Rhineland of Germany, and to New France in North America. From Spain and Portugal, they spread with Catholic colonization to the Caribbean and Latin America.
Many historians believe that the first American Mardi Gras took place on March 3, 1699, when the French explorers Iberville and Bienville landed south of the holiday’s future American epicenter: New Orleans. They held a small celebration and dubbed the spot Point du Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras was observed in Mobile, Alabama, by French soldiers when it was a still a colony of France in 1703. In the decades that followed, New Orleans and other French settlements began marking the holiday with street parties, masked balls and lavish dinners. When the Spanish took control of New Orleans, however, they abolished these rowdy festivities, and the bans remained in force until Louisiana became part of the United States in 1812.
On Mardi Gras in 1827, a group of students donned colorful costumes and danced through the streets of New Orleans, emulating the revelry they’d observed while visiting Paris. Ten years later, the first recorded New Orleans Mardi Gras parade took place, a tradition that continues to this day. In 1840 the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, a Mobile organizations journeyed to New Orleans to the secret society of New Orleans businessmen called the Mistick Krewe of Comus organize a torch-lit Mardi Gras procession with marching bands and rolling floats, setting the tone for future public celebrations in the city. Since then, krewes have remained a fixture of the Carnival scene throughout Louisiana. The event was well received and continued until it was suspended during the American Civil War. Mardi Gras was one of the first local institutions to be revived after the war. It reappeared in 1866 and has continued to grow in modern times.
Today, traditional Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans spotlight the King of the Carnival and the Monarch of Merriment, as well as Comus, the God of Revelry. Many people dress up in eye-catching costumes and a spectacular ball is held. Debutantes are introduced at the Ball Tablaeu in their formal introduction to society.
People throw trinkets to crowds as part of the customary “parade throw” at New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration. During the Bacchus parade, the king’s float throws doubloons with the image of the “Celebrity King” on one side of the doubloon (cups and toy coins) to parade watchers. Traditional Mardi Gras food includes the King Cake in which a pecan or charm is hidden. The person who gets a piece of the cake with the charm or nut is dubbed the “king” of that year’s Mardi Gras.
Louisiana is the only state in which Mardi Gras is a legal holiday. However, elaborate carnival festivities draw crowds in other parts of the United States during the Mardi Gras season as well, including Alabama and Mississippi. Each region has its own events and traditions.
Mardi Gras festivities are particularly colorful in French cities such as Cannes, Grasse, and Nice. Celebrations feature grand parades of flower covered floats with giant figures. People are dressed in costumes and confetti is thrown as an expression of merriment or joy. A grotesque effigy that represents evil is burned at the end of the day.
It is also traditional in many parts of France to eat a large meal that includes crepes or waffles. Some people in the United Kingdom celebrate the day, known as Pancake Day, with games and races that involve tossing pancakes in the air. People in some parts of northern Sweden eat a meat stew on Shrove Tuesday, while those in the south eat “Shrove Tuesday buns” called semlor, which are filled with almond paste and topped with whipped cream.
Today, is a the time to party it up, and…Eat! Happy Mardi Gras!
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