Mardi Gras, carnaval, carnival—this fun and colorful festivity has many names depending on which country it’s celebrated. Originally a Christian holiday, it has now turned into an annual popular cultural event in which people gather to feast, dress up in extravagant and colorful outfits, and dance to their heart’s content. Even though Mardi Gras is a worldwide phenomenon and some countries practice this tradition to a certain extent, the best known celebrations take place in New Orleans, US, Venice, Italy, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, attracting millions of tourists every year.
History of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras has been around for thousands of years. Its origins can be traced back to festivities such as the pagan festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia (both held in ancient Rome) or similar festivities that commemorated the start of a new year or time of rebirth. When Christianity took over, however, instead of unceremoniously getting rid of local traditions, they decided to incorporate these into their religion, thus giving way to the Mardi Gras celebration as we know it nowadays. Thanks to religion, too, the festival spread to other European countries and eventually crossed over to other continents, who adopted and still keep this tradition alive.
What does Mardi Gras stand for?
Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” so it’s no wonder the festivity takes place on a Tuesday—but not just any Tuesday. In France, celebrations (which can range from one day up to one week depending on local customs) took place the day before Ash Wednesday which, in turn, inaugurates the Lenten season. Back then, the idea of this day was to consume all the food containing fats before starting on the forty days of lent, during which religious devotees usually fasted, mainly refraining from eating meat, as well as followed other practices in preparation for Easter. While the notion of Fat Tuesday still remains in the present day, it is now more commonly referred to as “Shrove Tuesday.”
Mardi Gras around the world!
Although most countries with a Christian background tend to celebrate Mardi Gras, some stand out with their full-blown celebrations. In New Orleans, for example, the festival begins on the Twelfth Night (January 6th) and lasts up to three months, a period in which the city comes alive with music, costumes, floats, decorations, parades and feasts. In Brazil, the Carnaval in Rio—considered the largest in the world—begins the Friday before Ash Wednesday and has at its heart one of the most impressive and grand parades, with colorful, samba schools (local dancing troupes) dancing in their over-the-top, feathery costumes. At the end of the celebrations, one of the samba schools is declared the winner of that year’s carnival. The Venice Carnival (or Carnevale) is also one of the most famous and oldest in the world, known for its long-held tradition of wearing gold-rimmed multi-colored masks and elaborate costumes. The Carnival takes place in the two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, and everyone can join in the parades or processions that flood the streets during this time, the mask being optional but a fun addition.
How to Celebrate Mardi Gras
While Mardi Gras may have started out as a religious tradition, it has turned into something much bigger than that and can definitely be enjoyed by everyone looking to have fun. Since the idea of Mardi Gras is to indulge in food and dance until hearts and stomachs are full, one of the best ways to celebrate this date is to decorate houses, wear colorful clothes, make traditional dishes and, if possible, join in the local festivities and participate in parades. It’s not mandatory to wear a costume or mask! There’s also the possibility to travel to one of the countries that are famous for the Mardi Gras celebrations, which can turn out to be a one-of-a-kind experience not to be missed.