Crixeo: Mardi Gras History
what is Mardi Gras? Let's Talk History, Tradition, and Cake
There are many theories as to how Mardi Gras began, but some might argue that it was born in 753 BC in a grotto at the foot of the Palatine, where a she-wolf was said to have suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of the almighty Rome. And each February 15, with the wolf as the city’s totem, the citizens of Rome would celebrate Lupercalia, a tribal fertility and purification festival that included plenty of rowdiness and celebration — as well as a love lottery where young men could win, through the luck of the draw, the companionship of women for a year. Of course, as Christianity gained influence, the pagan celebration had to take on another face, and so began Carnival — a period of celebration just before the penitential season of Lent, when everyone would have to be on their best behavior for at least 40 days.
This new tradition stretched across the Roman Empire, all the way to Gaul, which included modern-day France. And it was there, during the Middle Ages, that what became known as Mardi Gras was officially created. There were two types of Mardi Gras celebrations: those of the nobility and those of the peasants. In both cases, Carnival officially began on the 12th day after Christmas, known as Twelfth Night, and ended on Fat Tuesday, the day of fun and feasts prior to the fasting that came with Lent, a time marked by the arrival of Ash Wednesday.
So ingrained was the importance of this celebration that in 1699 when the French explorer Iberville and his men moored their ships some 60 miles from modern-day New Orleans, they were quick to recognize that back home on that very day Mardi Gras was being celebrated. As a result, they named the area Point du Mardi Gras, heralding the first known Mardi Gras celebration in the New World.
Of course, as Louisiana was further colonized by the French, these traditions were able to gain a more solid footing. For instance, as New Orleans became established, so too did the elaborate balls and feasts of the upper classes, which included the now-infamous King Cake, or Gateau des Rois. In the more rural communities around South Louisiana, now inhabited by the Cajuns (or the Acadian refugees of French Canada), traditional begging, mischief and pranks of the Courir de Mardi Gras were able to take root. And from these humble beginnings, the decadent and expansive parades that take place across Louisiana each year were created, with an entirely new type of nobility rising to the occasion.
Today the city of New Orleans alone stands to benefit from the $500 million economic impact of Mardi Gras, with the last season boasting some 135,000 participants in more than 50 parades featuring nearly 600 marching bands and over 1,000 floats. But, as proven year after year, Mardi Gras is more than a party — it’s a celebration steeped in history and kept alive by fervent believers in tradition, creativity, great food and plenty of (mostly) harmless debauchery.
So what is Mardi Gras? Here are five highlights of the celebration.