Some time in the Second Century during mid-February, Ancient Romans would observe what they called the Lupercalia, a festival that was the pre-cursor to our present day Mardi Gras. Lupercalia was part drunken revel, part circus and honored the Roman deity Lupercus, a pastoral God associated with Fauns or the Satyr.
When Christianity took over in Rome, the early Church fathers decided it would be easier to incorporate parts of the earlier pagan celebrations into the new faith instead of trying to outlaw them. This changed Lupercalia into a carnival to give a last party before entering Lent (a symbolic Christian pentinence of 40 days beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending at Easter). The new celebration included several days of feasting and all aspects of pleasure with participants donning costumes and masks to leave their regular lives behind for the celebration.
The celebration spread from Rome to other European countries. In medieval times, the festival was given by monarchs and lords in order to ceremoniously conscript new knights and hold feasts in their honor. The lords would ride through the countryside giving out cakes to peasants (thought to be the origin of the King Cake tradition), coins (perhaps the origin of modern day Mardi Gras doubloons), and other trinkets.
Mardi Gras came to American in 1699 with the French explorer Sieur d’Iberville. The festival had been celebrated in Paris as a major holiday since the Middle Ages. Iberville’s camp was on the West bank of the Mississippi River, about 60 miles south of the city of New Orleans. As he founded the camp the day on which Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France, Iberville names the site Point du Mardi Gras in honor of the festival. The first recorded Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans was in 1827 culminating in an annual Mardi Gras Ball.
Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” so named because it falls on the day before Ash Wednesday and the last day prior to Lent. Since Easter varies from year to year, so does Mardi Gras.
Today of course, New Orleans is the heart of Mardi Gras though it is celebrated in many other cities and most famously perhaps, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is celebrated with parades, lots of parties, and continues that early Roman tradition of wearing elaborate costumes and masks letting you celebrate in wild abandon…with the mask and costume hiding your identity to allow you to celebrate freely.
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