Mardi Gras is a Christian celebration that occurs every year before the onset of Lent and is associated with Louisiana and New Orleans in particular. It is also known as Carnival in many places around the world, such as Italy and Brazil, and normally involves parades and street parties.
The celebration of Mardi Gras has its roots in the pagan festivals of Greece and Rome that celebrated fertility and the oncoming of spring. Following the introduction of Christianity to the Roman Empire in the beginning of the 4th century, the authorities kept the celebrations but merely changed their focus so that they now had new Christian connotations. Mardi Gras became the beginning of the 40 days of penance that is Lent.
The first ever Mardi Gras celebration recorded in America occurred in 1699 when French explorers landed in Louisiana and held a celebration at a place they named Point du Mardi Gras. Throughout the 18th century, the inhabitants of Louisiana continued with the festival making the celebrations more elaborate including street parties and lavish balls. In 1763, the Spanish took control of Louisiana and Mardi Gras celebrations were outlawed. This remained the case until Louisiana became part of the USA in 1812.
In 1837, the first Mardi Gras parade took place with participants wearing colorful clothes and dancing through the streets of New Orleans. The parade developed following the intervention of a group known as the Mistick Krewe of Comus who held a torch-lit procession complete with floats and bands. This paved the way for the modern Mardi Gras celebration that is known in New Orleans.
Although Mardi Gras is associated closely with Louisiana, other states such as Mississippi and Alabama have their own versions of the celebration. Mobile, Alabama draws in crowds of up to 150,000 each year at its Mardi Gras celebrations. Louisiana is the only state in the U.S. where Mardi Gras is a legal holiday.
Mardi Gras is a festival celebrated across the world in places where there are Roman Catholic and Orthodox populations. In Brazil it has become known as Carnival that is a combination of European and African traditions and festivities. Venice has its own version that has a history that goes back to the 13th century and includes masked balls, whereas Canada celebrates the event in Quebec City with what is known as the Quebec Winter Carnival.
- Mardi Gras Float image by Jamie Patrick from Fotolia.com