The History of Mardi Gras

The roots of this Christian holiday in pagan traditions and its American evolution

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Mardi Gras is easily recognized by its lively gold, green and purple masks, the bead throwing and the great parade floats, but where did this extravagant tradition originate?

Mardi Gras is French for “fat Tuesday” and synonymous with the Carnival festivities celebrated in Latin America.

Mardi Gras is a Christian tradition, the day to stuff up before Ash Wednesday and the arrival of the forty days of Lent. In accordance, the name ‘Carnival’ derives from the Latin ‘Carnelevamen,’ meaning ‘farewell to flesh’ in honor of Jesus Christ’s sacrifices in the desert.

Mardi Gras holds its origins in pagan traditions like Lupercalia and Saturnalia, where slaves had a free day to party and gamble and enjoy life to the fullest. When Christians came to Rome, they decided it was easier to incorporate some of those festivities into their religion rather than trying to abolish them altogether.

As a result, the excess and debauchery of the Mardi Gras season became a prelude to Lent. These festivities spread from Rome and throughout the rest of Europe, eventually finding their way into the U.S. with the arrival of French immigrants into New Orleans.

However, when the Spanish took control of New Orleans, these rowdy rituals were abolished, the bans remaining in place until Louisiana became a U.S. state in 1812. Louisiana is the only state in which Mardi Gras is a legal holiday.

In 1872, Louisiana was struggling to recover from the effects of the Civil War and trying to bring order to the chaotic Mardi Gras street parades. When Russia’s Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff announced that he would visit New Orleans for the Mardi Gras parades, it sparked a group of young men to create the Rex Organization, whose efforts were to bring order to the street parades in time for the Duke’s arrival.

They succeeded in their endeavors, nominating Lewis J. Solomon as the first Rex, King of Carnaval, who borrowed his crown, scepter and costume from an actor who happened to be in town at the time.    These traditions remain in place to this day, as New Orleans is filled with partying, royal balls, and all around festivities in the Mardi Gras season.

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