MARDI GRAS: Delve into New Orleans’ rich history

by Emma Secker

Hordes of tourists flood to New Orleans every year for festive Mardi Gras celebrations. Colorful costumes and tomfoolery are resplendent within the city, MCT Campus
Hordes of tourists flood to New Orleans every year for festive Mardi Gras celebrations. Colorful costumes and tomfoolery are resplendent within the city, MCT Campus

Aside from debauchery, colorful costumes, flashy beads and flashing women, many students might be unaware of the true cultural history behind Mardi Gras and how the holiday has evolved into the boisterous celebration it is today.

Every year, New Orleans erupts in purple, green and gold as Mardi Gras arrives, bringing with it tides of carnival and festivity. Mardi Gras always falls on Fat Tuesday, or the Tuesday preceding the commencement of the Christian period of corporal abstinence known as Lent.

Although New Orleans can be considered the heart of modern day Mardi Gras, according to an online article by Jim Davis titled “Mardi Gras History,” the holiday’s roots can in fact be traced back to religious conversion in ancient Rome.

“When Rome embraced Christianity, the early Church fathers decided it was better to incorporate certain aspects of pagan rituals into the new faith rather than attempt to abolish them altogether,” Davis stated. “Carnival became a period of abandon and merriment that preceded the penance of Lent, thus giving a Christian interpretation to the ancient custom.”

Mardi Gras emerged in Rome as a celebration called Lupercalia. This day enabled Christians to relish in corporal delights one last time before Lent’s extended period of carnal deprivation began. An occasion for celebrators to indulge in feast, festival and overall frivolity, Lupercalia was intended to honor the Roman god “Lupercus” who represented both fertility and agriculture.

During this festive period, Romans typically wore decorative masks behind which promiscuous or rambunctious behavior, reminiscent of the contemporary holiday, ensued while remaining anonymous. It was from this that the Mardi Gras custom of costume and masks began.

The tradition then spread to other European countries during the medieval era as a ceremonial ritual, initiating and honoring new men entering into knighthood. The celebration was slightly different from country to country, but across all regions remained one common theme: indulgence.

According to Davis, Mardi Gras eventually made its way to the U.S. in 1699 because of French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville. He supposedly landed 60 miles outside of modern day New Orleans on the exact day that Mardi Gras was being celebrated overseas in France. He fittingly named that landing point “Point du Mardi Gras.”

The exact person or event credited for creating today’s celebration of Mardi Gras remains in dispute. One theory states that the ruckus began in 1827 with a group of adventurous students returning home from Paris to New Orleans, who proceeded to dance in the streets wearing extravagant costumes.

The residents of New Orleans were so charmed by this 24-hour tomfoolery, it thereafter became a cherished, annual tradition. Other sources maintain the Mardi Gras celebration originated with the arrival of early French settlers to Louisiana. In either case, it is agreed that today’s Mardi Gras has an obvious French influence.

According to mardisgrasneworleans.com, it was in the late 1830s that Mardi Gras in New Orleans began to resemble the bacchanal it is today. By then, the city held annual processions of masked revelers riding carriages and horseback to celebrate the holiday.

Although the Mardi Gras of today, with its flashing women and beaded necklaces, might seem like a rather forced hedonistic adaptation of the original holiday, the idea behind bartering beads for bare skin traces back to a core Mardi Gras virtue: the honoring of fertility and carnal indulgence before one participates in “carnival” — a Latin expression meaning “farewell to flesh.”

Today, party lovers across the globe will don flamboyant attire, gaudy beads and colorful face masks and continue the uninhibited traditions the French and Romans instituted in the name of celebrating all things pleasurable.