The Origin of Mardi Gras!
It is widely accepted that Mardi Gras first came to America in 1699 with the French explorer, Sieur d’ Iberville, who would be instrumental in laying the foundation for the Louisiana colony. Despite its recent arrival here, Mardi Gras has ancient roots stemming from the old Roman celebrations of Saturnalia and the Lupercalia. Saturn and Lupercus were deities associated with harvest and agriculture respectively. The Saturnalia was celebrated in December and while it gave birth to many of our Christmas traditions, it also helped to create the Medieval Feast of Fools. During the Saturnalia social order was inverted, class distinctions were transiently dissolved, and debauchery encouraged. Public intoxication, gambling, and nudity were all allowed. This is sounding more and more like our modern Mardi Gras. The Lupercalia was a fertility festival held sometime in February, usually the 15th and helped to give rise not only to Mardi Gras but also our Valentine’s day. Women, scantily clad would run through throngs of men armed with leather thongs and whichever women suffered the whip were thought to become fertile. Then to test that assumption, lots of wine was consumed and an orgy followed. Again, Mardi Gras celebrations have not evolved much since then. When Christianity came onto the scene, it was prudent to convert the masses in order for the new religion to flourish. The so-called Pagans were reticent to relinquish their old gods and customs. The Church found that adding Christian titles to existing festivals ameliorated the process and converted more people at a faster rate. The old Saturnalia and Lupercalia were officially appropriated as The Feast of Purification by Pope Gelasius I in 494 CE. Mardi Gras or Carnival was born. The Carnival season officially begins on January 6 with the Feast of the Epiphany and marks the moment of revelation accompanied by the Magi witnessing the star in the heavens, denoting the birth of Christ. The season runs until midnight on Mardi Gras day and is followed by the 40 day period of Lent or penitence. Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” because it is the last hurrah before the prayer and fasting of Lent. The word carnival comes from the Latin carnelevarium and means to take away or remove meat as Lent is often associated with the giving up of meat. As mankind moved into the Middle Ages, life became nearly unbearable for the poor masses constantly haunted by the spectre of hunger and the Black Death. Carnival with its Feast of Fools offered a reprieve, if only temporary, from the drudgery of existence. The Feast of Fools followed the Roman Saturnalia by reversing the social order so that peasants became kings for a day or mere boys morphed into Bishops or Popes. The custom of appointing a boy to Bishop evolved into the crowning of the Bean King. A bean or trinket was baked into a cake and whichever reveler got the slice with the bean became king or the Lord of Misrule. This is one plausible origin of the King cake. In New Orleans, the bean has since been replaced by the plastic baby and is now supposed to represent the Christ child. Another possible origin of the King Cake comes from this being a time where the Lord of the Manor conscripted new knights by hosting parties in their honor. The landed gentry would also ride into the countryside treating the peasants to small cakes, trinkets, and coins. The last two making the transformation into “throws” and doubloons.
No matter how the party began, New Orleans ensures that locals and visitors alike keep the festivities humming along with free flowing alcohol, super krewes, and costumes galore!
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