How Mardi Gras Started: Hard Winters and Charity

Feb 8, 2018
Story of Mardi Gras

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



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It’s hard to believe that Mardi Gras started with long hard winters and acts of charity. However, before it was a day for parties, Mardi Gras started out as a day to help the hungry and the poor.

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.

About This Blog

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to "Weather Whispers" by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather—from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these blog posts. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.

Reader Comments

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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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