Outside of New Orleans and southern Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, Mardi Gras generally comes as news—if it comes at all—to people in the rest of the United States when they see footage on network and cable news. Oh, it must be Mardi Gras again. Look at all those crazy-dressed people milling around on Bourbon Street. Now back to work, or looking for a job.
There are emigrés from New Orleans and southern Louisiana all over the U.S. and around the world who feel Carnival coming for weeks before the big day arrives, and we know it’s not a one-day affair (how could it be?). We look around at life going on in January, February, and sometimes March, and wonder how our fellow citizens can not know that Carnival is coming, that it has already started, it’s here. And especially on Fat Tuesday itself—which is today—seeing life go on as Just Another Day, earning just another dollar, we’re reminded of the 1984 Band Aid  song “Do They Know It’s Christmas? ” (recorded to raise awareness and aid for the 1983–85 famine in Ethiopia). It is not entirely a fair comparison, but there’s a resemblance, and the question does come up.
New Orleans–based social justice journalist Jordan Flaherty published an opinion piece in the Washington Post titled Five Myths about Mardi Gras  that does a decent job of dispelling some misconceptions about Carnival—we’re all for dispelling false views, especially about New Orleans and Louisiana—and we recommend Jordan’s piece. But first we’d like to offer the following essay, which goes into more detail about the historical, cultural background of what we call Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Carnival. (Interestingly, in this international world we live in, there are other terms in other languages!) We humbly present the following, originally written by one of our staff writers for Festivals and Holidays , a Macmillan Profiles encyclopedia.
Mardi Gras: From Ancient Origins, with a New Orleans Twist
Mardi Gras, also called “Shrove Tuesday” or “Fat Tuesday” is a flamboyant Carnival celebration that most Americans associate with the city of New Orleans. The exact date for Mardi Gras varies from year to year, but it always falls on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, forty-one days before Easter.
Mardi Gras has roots deep in pagan rites of ancient Greece, and is the “climax day” of a whole season of festivities—balls, parties, parades—that begins on Twelfth Night, or Epiphany (also known as January 6). Although the festival is most commonly associated with the Crescent City, the first American Mardi Gras was celebrated in Mobile, in present-day Alabama, in the 1830s (except it was really New Year’s Eve). Mardi Gras is still celebrated in Mobile, as well as in other southern Louisiana towns and cities such as Baton Rouge, New Roads, and Lafayette.
“Fat Tuesday,” the culmination of over a month of celebrations, is the great day when the parades of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club and the Krewe of Rex roll down oak-lined St. Charles Avenue into downtown New Orleans, where thousands, or a million—not necessarily sober—are lined along Canal Street, the widest downtown street in America. When the great floats arrive, and the masked captains and marshals in robes of medieval royalty hold out their hands full of beads, people yell, “Throw me somethin’, mister!” and reach up in a joyous frenzy for the colorful beads, cups, doubloons, and the famous painted Zulu coconuts. Though the big parades don’t go into the Vieux Carré anymore, the crowd swells across Canal into the French Quarter: sometimes a million people are crowded together on land that is [just a few feet above] sea level, a quarter mile from the Mississippi River. [Ed. note: bracketed phrase corrects a factual error in the original.]
Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday’s pagan origins are best traced to the Roman Lupercalia, though the roots go even deeper, into fertility and purification rites in Greek Arcadia some five thousand years ago, as recorded by the Roman poet Ovid. He describes a springtime purification and fertility rite practiced by Greek shepherds in Arcadia about five thousand years ago in hopes of winning good crops and remission of sins. Priests known as luperci would sacrifice a goat, eat its flesh, and cut its hide into strips. As the sun was setting on the day of the rite, the luperci would appear, their faces smeared with the goat’s blood, and brandishing the goat-hide whips. The luperci chased and lashed the men and women who ran naked through the fields or lanes of the town. This ritual was later introduced to Rome, where it developed into a riotous, masochistic orgy known as the Lupercalia.
Around 200 B.C., the Romans began to worship Cybele, the Great Mother, a fertility goddess with roots in Asia Minor, and embraced the cult of Cybele’s son, Attis. The springtime rituals for fertility and purification that became known as the Lupercalia followed a week of fasting; the festival was a two-day frenzy of drunken abandon accompanied by music of trumpets and flutes and cymbals. For two days, all social order was cast aside as priests would wear women’s clothes (if they liked), patrician masters and mistresses consorted with slaves; and masks, costumes, and cross-dressing were common among both priests and the laity. The Lupercalia continued as an annual custom for at least seven hundred years.
Naturally, the early Christian church was horrified by the disorder. Saint Gelasius I, the bishop of Rome (that is to say, the Pope) from 492 to 496, forbade Christians from participating in the Lupercalia and transformed the festival into the feast of the Purification of the Virgin. By this time, however, the Lupercalia had spread from Rome and Ostia into the provinces, especially in Gaul and Africa. In Gaul, or present-day France, Druid priests had long celebrated a Fête du Soleil (Festival of the Sun) in which a young bull dressed in garlands of leaves and flowers was led through the town, then sacrificed. The bull appears today as the Boeuf Gras, symbolizing the last meat permitted before Lent, at the head of the Rex parade on Mardi Gras day.
In 325 the Council of Nicea established a method for reckoning the date of Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It was decided that Easter Sunday would be on the first Sunday after the next full moon following the vernal equinox (March 21). The forty days before Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday, were the period of penance, prayer, and fasting known as Lent. The last possible day before Lent to enjoy earthly pleasures, then, was the Tuesday we know today as Mardi Gras.
The New World
In the French territory they called “la Louisiane,” the two principal settlements were Mobile and “la Nouvelle-Orléans.” The French and Spanish Creoles who had lived in New Orleans since the 1700s had loved music and theater from their earliest days; a fine ball or opera was always more important than money or business. (New Orleans had two opera houses before any other American city had one.)
One of the earliest mentions of a Mardi Gras procession (not an organized parade, as would appear later) appears in a Picayune of 1838: “In the procession [of young Creole gentlemen] were several carriages superbly ornamented—bands of music, horses richly caparisoned—personations of knights, cavaliers, heros, demigods, chanticleers, and punchinellos, all mounted. Many of them were dressed in female attire, and acted the lady with no small degree of grace.”
Although they developed an elaborate culture of masked balls and fêtes, the French did not originate the Carnival parades as we know them today. To the Creoles’ horror and disgust, it was those vulgar Américains on the other side of Canal Street who began the tradition of parades with decorated floats through the streets of New Orleans. In December 1856, at a time when New Orleans was at its pinnacle of prosperity, six young men who had moved to New Orleans from Mobile, and had been among that city’s New Year’s Eve revelers calling themselves the Cowbellions, formed a society that would change Mardi Gras forever. “The Mystick Krewe of Comus” was named for the hero in John Milton’s poem Comus, a sorcerer and a hedonist, the son of Bacchus and Circe. On Mardi Gras night of 1857, Comus’s inaugural parade through the Garden District was a pair of carriages bearing the masked krewe members, preceded by brass bands and surrounded by a ring of torches. It was a spectacular procession of pageantry and theater, and no one could stop talking about it. After the debut of Comus in 1857, elaborate parades became the centerpieces of Carnival.
Mardi Gras received a great boost of refinement and popularity in 1872 when the krewe of Rex gave its first parade, coinciding with a visit to New Orleans by Alexis Romanoff, the grand duke of Russia. During his tour of the United States, Grand Duke Alexis had become enchanted by a musical-comedy performer in the New York production of “Bluebeard”: the actress-singer Lydia Thompson’s singing of “If Ever I May Cease to Love” was widely reported as having caught the Grand Duke’s heart. Therefore the newly assembled krewe of Rex promoted the song, and decorated the city with the colors of the house of Romanoff, green (for faith), gold (power), and purple (justice). These three colors have since been adopted as the official colors of carnival. In addition to introducing the colors, the krewe of Rex added several other elements that have become integral to Carnival: Rex, the king of Carnival (there was no king before Rex), the Boeuf Gras, and the anthem, “If Ever I May Cease to Love.” Rex introduced a grandeur to the madness, as shown in this Proclamation from the King of Carnival in 1934:
Greeting: The Lord High Chamberlain of His Majesty’s household announces that the King will pay his annual visit to His beloved Capital City of New Orleans on the great fête day of Mardi Gras on the 13th day of February 1934. . . . It is ordained that good weather shall prevail, and the City of Flowers in its Festive array promises abundant pleasure to all within her gates.
The original krewes were social clubs of wealthy and powerful gentlemen, and most of them still are today. But anyone can form a krewe (a variant spelling of crew), as the following names may attest: The Knights of Momus, the Order of Druids, the High Priests of Mithras, and the krewes of Rex, Bacchus, Endymion, and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. More recent additions include Iris, Isis, the Krewe de Vieux, the gay Krewe of Petronius, and the Krewe of Barkus (for dogs).
Mardi Gras is not a money-making opportunity in the ordinary sense, unless one owns a hotel, restaurant, or a liquor wholesale supply company. Costumiers and mask-makers can do a good business, but the best ones are not “in it for the money.” The parades are free, they are not sponsored by any company, and (one hopes) they never will be. There is a clear hierarchy of participation in the festival, but the Carnival is for everyone, a mingling of the poor and the wealthy and everyone in between. Carnival is a release from all the cares of dollars and deals; imagination and good cheer are infinitely more important than anything money can buy—although a hotel room with a bathroom near Canal Street is always highly valued.
It is not an exaggeration to say that to the people of New Orleans, Mardi Gras is bigger than Christmas; even a hundred years ago, Carnival was the biggest show in town, and Christmas, while a holy day, was not nearly the huge commercial or nostalgic juggernaut it has become during the twentieth century.
Midnight in the Garden of Gomorrah
The police on horseback move in a phalanx down Bourbon Street, sweeping the crowds onto the narrow sidewalks, telling everyone to go home, the party is over. The police are serious. Lights are going out, people are walking home, or trying to find where they parked, and some are taking aspirins to ward off tomorrow’s hangover. Lent has come; time to sacrifice, to put aside certain pleasures for forty days, till Easter. But already the krewes are planning balls and parades, and all across town the Mardi Gras Indians are threading their needles for next year’s costume.
Henri Schindler, Mardi Gras: New Orleans  (Paris; New York: Flammarion, 1997).
Carol Flake, New Orleans: Behind the Masks of America’s Most Exotic City  (New York: Grove Press, 1994).