History of Mardi Gras

When we think of Mardi Gras it is only natural to think of New Orleans and her spirit of “Laissez les bon temps rouler” or let the good times roll. Our mind quickly conjures the image of hundreds of “spirited” revelers tossing colorful beads from iron laced balconies. As natural as this picture may seem, Mardi Gras did not in fact originate in New Orleans.

The roots of Mardi Gras run far deeper, to ancient times when the Romans would celebrate Lupercalia, a circus like festival held in mid February to honor the deity Lupercus. When Rome embraced Christianity, a new and volatile religion, the early Church fathers felt it wise to incorporate certain pagan rituals such as Lupercalia, into the new faith rather than abolish them all together. This carnival celebration soon became associated with the Christian period of Lent. It was a time of merry abandonment which preceded the absences that would befall worshipers during Lent.

During medieval times similar festivals were held by lords prior to the Lenten period in order to pay tribute to faithful knights. Hence the medieval theme of kings and court jesters that is prevalent in Mardi Gras celebrations and parades.

It was France that gave birth to the expression “Mardi Gras”, translated quite literally as “Fat Tuesday”. This was to reference the Tuesday, the climax of Mardi Gras, which preceded Ash Wednesday. In Paris elaborate masquerade balls were held to celebrate Mardi Gras. This tradition has survived into the modern gala and eccentric display of costumes which are so commonplace in the streets of New Orleans today.

It wasn’t until 1699, and the arrival of French explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sier de Bienville, that Mardi Gras found her home in New Orleans. Settling some 60 miles from present day New Orleans, Jean Baptiste named the plot of land Pointe du Mardi Gras in honor of his native tradition. Hence Mardi Gras had arrived in America.

As in the mother land of France, early Mardi Gras celebrations in the new territory of Louisiana were a formal affair. Exquisite galas and balls were held, with exotic costumes which the wealthy paraded in front of one another. But the birth of New Orleans would be an awakening for commoners as well. Drawn to her culture were settlers from rich and diverse regions, all of whom contributed to the melting pot that is today New Orleans. Mardi Gras soon came to embrace New Orleans with all of her diversity.

Over the last three centuries Mardi Gras in New Orleans has grown into a celebration that attracts hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. The French Quarter and Bourbon Street have become synonymous with Mardi Gras. The growth of festivities have included the introduction of elaborate floats in the 1870’s which is today a staple of the modern Mardi Gras celebration.

Though many obstacles, such as religious bans, Prohibition, even natural disasters have threatened Mardi Gras- the party continues and the good times roll on.