The Story of Mardi Gras: Hard Winters and Great Parties

Story of Mardi Gras

It’s Mardi Gras time in New Orleans. Can spring be far away?



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When you look at the parades and parties of Mardi Gras, it’s hard to believe that it started with long hard winters and acts of charity.

Most people know Mardi Gras as the last extravagant day before Lent. Even the name, Mardi Gras, translates to Fat Tuesday suggesting the last feast of rich food before the self-denial some Christians observe before Easter. However, before it was a day for parties, Mardi Gras started out as hungry day near the end of winter, when people needed charity.

In the past, the last six weeks of winter could be very harsh and food supplies frequently ran short. In Medieval France, Mardi Gras became a traditional day when the poor were allowed to visit their wealthier neighbors and beg for food. In return, they would sing, dance and entertain their hosts. As traditions evolved, the beggars began to wear costumes, hiding their identities and salvaging their pride. They formed parades and a painful begging process evolved into a party.

Local communities in Louisiana celebrate old-fashioned Courir de Mardi Gras, closer to the original days of sharing food, drink and hospitality. Source: Wikipedia

 Today, rural Louisiana has the costumed parades from house to house, as neighbors share food, drink and hospitality. These Courir de Mardi Gras usually end with gumbo and contests in a community center. In cities, it has evolved into more of a spectator sport with parades, parties and extravagant costumes. In memory of the older days of charity, necklaces and tokens are thrown to spectators.

Different versions of this celebration occur around the world, from Carnival in Europe to North and South America. Pity me, gentle reader, as I shovel snow this February and correspond with my student son in Brazil. I shiver in the cold, while he is wearing shorts and has a week off for Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Called “The Greatest Show on Earth”, their carnivals combine European, African and Native American traditions to become citywide festivals, filled with samba, feasts and parades.

Brazil calls its Carnival “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Source: Wikipedia

Yet behind all this glorious fun lies a simple truth: Winter was hard and people were kind. The parties of Mardi Gras celebrated charity and generosity.

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Evelyn Browning Garriss doesn't just blog about the weather forecast; she provides insight on WHY extreme weather is happening--and a heads up on weather to watch out for. A historical climatologist, Evelyn blogs about weather history, interesting facts about the weather, and upcoming climate events that affect your life--from farming to your grocery bill. Every week, we look forward to another great weather column from Evelyn. We encourage our weather watchers to post their comments and questions--and tell us what they think!

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Mobile, Alabama!

I think it's terrible you skipped over a huge chunk of history. Mobile, Alabama and Mardi Gras...look it up! Plus you sprinkle in Carnival of Brazil for what reason. You barely touched on the subject, should have been omitted. Mobile, Alabama.

Mardi-Gras "Kings Cake"

I would be interested in knowing the tradition of the Kings Cake that is popular at Mardi Gras time..I know that the Christ child is within the cake and the traditional colors of Purple/Gold/Green are used in the decoration..What is the story behind this unusual cake?

Mardi Gras and King Cake

That’s a great question. Many countries have their own version of “King Cake” which is served from Epiphany through Mardi Gras. In Louisiana, this comes from an old Creole custom (merging French and Spanish traditions) of choosing a king and queen on King’s Day, or Twelfth Night, which falls on January 6, or the twelfth day after Christmas. There were traditionally grand balls on Twelfth Night when a king and a queen were chosen. The festivals continued every night until the dawn of Ash Wednesday, and then the fasting of Lent began. Over time, it was just the week leading up to Lent which became Carnival Season. The baby inside the cake represented Jesus. Today, it’s often just a doll or a bean. In England, it was a bean and a pea. The man to find the bean was the King of the carnival, and the woman with the pea was the Queen.

You may be interested to know

You may be interested to know that Mardi Gras in the United States actually began in Mobile, Alabama. Just a bit of trivia you may want to research.

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