Billed as the “greatest free party on earth,” Mardi Gras is celebrated by millions around the world. But what is the origin of this event—and should it be celebrated?
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Colorful costumes. Spectacular parades. Elegant pageants. Masked balls. People dancing in the streets to rhythmic, intoxicating music. All with an air of carefree abandon. As the music reverberates, alcohol flows. Wildly elaborate floats glide down the street, with frenzied masqueraders onboard. Crowds of onlookers shout encouragement.
It’s that time of the year—Mardi Gras! Time for one of the biggest parties on the planet to begin.
Mardi Gras (also called “Carnival” in many countries) is a time of unrestrained merrymaking, in which participants passionately indulge every fleshly desire. Celebrated predominantly in Roman Catholic communities in Europe and Latin America, pre-Lenten carnivals are spreading in the U.S. Some of the more famous celebrations occur in New Orleans, Louisiana; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; Nice, France; and Cologne, Germany.
Although the term Mardi Gras refers to a specific day, it is not a single-day celebration. Every year, beginning in January, Carnival festivities occur daily, culminating in the final climatic Mardi Gras celebration the day before the observance of Lent, a 40-day period of self-denial. Mardi Gras is considered to be the last day for indulging in the pleasures of the flesh before Lent begins. In fact, the word Carnival means “farewell to the flesh,” and comes from the Latin words carnis (“flesh”) and vale (“farewell”).
This festival is so popular that millions celebrate it. For example, three million people flock to New Orleans annually to participate in what is often billed as “the greatest free show on earth.” It adds an estimated $1 billion to the city’s economy, and its population more than doubles during the week leading up to Fat Tuesday.
While this festival is highly popular, is it merely harmless fun?
Even though Carnival is observed around the world, let’s consider more closely how Mardi Gras is celebrated in America.
This may come as a surprise, but Mardi Gras long predates Christianity. The earliest record comes from ancient times, when tribes celebrated a fertility festival that welcomed the arrival of spring, a time of renewal of life. The Romans called this pagan festival Lupercalia in honor of “Lupercus,” the Roman god of fertility. Lupercalia was a drunken orgy of merrymaking held each February in Rome, after which participants fasted for 40 days.
Interestingly, similar to modern celebrations, the Romans donned masks, dressed in costumes and indulged all of their fleshly desires as they gave themselves to the gods “Bacchus” (god of wine) and “Venus” (goddess of love). The masks and costumes were used as disguises to allow sexual liberties not normally permitted as individuals engaged in “bacchanal,” the drunken and riotous occasion in honor of Bacchus. (The word “bacchanal” is still associated with Carnival celebrations to this day.)
As pagans converted to Catholicism, they did not want to give up this popular celebration. Church leaders, seeing that it was impossible to divorce the new converts from their pagan customs, decided to “Christianize” this festival. Thus, Carnival was created as a time of merrymaking immediately preceding their pagan 40-day fast, which the church renamed “Lent.” During Carnival, participants indulged in madness and all aspects of pleasure allowable, including gluttony, drunkenness and fornication.
The festival then spread to Europe, where it was celebrated in England, Spain, Germany, France and other countries. During the Middle Ages, a festival similar to the present-day Mardi Gras was given by monarchs and lords prior to Lent. To conscript new knights into service, the nobles would hold feasts in their honor, and they would ride through the countryside rewarding peasants with cakes (thought by some to be the origin of the “King Cake,” to be explained later), coins (probably the origin of present day Mardi gifts of “doubloons”) and other trinkets.
In Germany, there is a Carnival similar to Mardi Gras known as “Fasching,” held during the same period. To a lesser extent, this festivity is also celebrated in Spain and France.
In France, the festival was called Mardi Gras, meaning “Fat Tuesday.” This name comes from the ancient pagan practice of killing and eating a fattened calf on the last day of Carnival; it dates from the pre-Christian era when the Druids sacrificed offerings to pagan gods, seeking more fertile women and livestock. This day was also known as “Shrove Tuesday” (from the old English word “shrive,” which means to confess all sins) and “Pancake Tuesday.” The custom of making pancakes came from the need to use up all the fat, eggs and dairy products before the fasting period of Lent began.
From Europe, it spread around the world, particularly in communities of Catholic heritage. It reached America in the 17th century, brought by French settlers to the southern states—particularly Louisiana, where the earliest record of the holiday being held was 1699. On March 3rd of that year, the French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville set up camp on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about 60 miles south of New Orleans. He named his camp “Pointe du Mardi Gras” in honor of the festival. From that time onward, Louisiana citizens of French ancestry have observed Mardi Gras with masked balls and parties.
According to other sources, Mardi Gras started in New Orleans when a group of students who had recently returned from Paris donned masks and costumes and danced their way through the streets of the city. The inhabitants were swiftly captured by their enthusiasm, and followed suit.
Under French rule, the celebrations flourished, but were later banned by the Spanish governors as the revelry had become out of control. This prohibition continued even after Louisiana became an American state in 1803. However, the French “Creole” population persuaded the U.S. government to reinstate Mardi Gras. After the ban was lifted, the festival became so popular in the city that the Carnival season’s duration was limited several times to prevent yearlong celebrations.
Mardi Gras developed into the elaborate affair it is today during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the early 1800s, the celebration was a simple affair consisting of masked revelers on foot, in carriages and on horseback. In 1837, there was the first parade, but the violent behavior of participants led to calls for ending the festival. Yet Mardi Gras was saved by six men who formed the “Comus,” which sought to beautify the celebration and to prove that it could be enjoyed in a safe manner. The Comus organization first coined the name “krewe” (an organization that puts on a carnival parade and ball for Mardi Gras in New Orleans) and established many of the festival’s present traditions, such as secret Carnival organizations, themed parades with costumed masqueraders and beautiful floats, and holding balls after the parades.
The festival was disrupted by the Civil War, but afterward quickly resumed. In 1871, an American tradition was established when a cake with a bean in it was presented to a young woman. This signified her selection as Mardi Gras queen, and started the “King Cake” tradition. In 1872, the famous “Rex” appeared, the King of Carnival that became the international symbol of Mardi Gras. Rex presented the festival’s signature colors (green, gold and purple), produced its flag and introduced its anthem, “If Ever I Cease to Love.” Other significant developments included the appearance of the first black krewe in 1894 and the first female krewe in 1896.
Though the First World War also disrupted it, the festival still survived and prospered, later surviving the Prohibition years and the Great Depression.
After World War II, it gained new life, reaching a high point when one of New Orleans’ native sons, world-famous jazz musician Louis Armstrong, returned home to ride as king of the Zulu parade of 1949. This brought the festival greater media attention worldwide as it made the cover of Time magazine.
Mardi Gras’ fame increased further in the 1950s, when Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited the New Orleans festival and honored the participants by bowing to the monarchs of the Rex and Comus krewes at the Comus ball. The decade also saw the formation of other krewes.
The 1960s saw larger, more elaborate floats introduced. And for the first time, Hollywood celebrities took a leading role when comedian and film star Danny Kaye rode as king of the Bacchus krewe.
Mardi Gras’ growth has continued from the 1970s to the present day. Parades have increased in number and in size. Perhaps the biggest change is that there has been a huge increase in tourism during the Carnival season. The festival has become world famous, with media from many countries coming every year to cover the celebration. Another change is that it has become a year-round event, as off-season conventions are frequently treated to mini-parades and repeat balls in the city’s convention center. The festival continues to grow. In 2000, the economic growth it brought to the city surpassed the $1 billion mark.
Again, Mardi Gras is a massive festival. As Carnival season approaches, residents decorate the city in the traditional colors of green (symbolizing faith), gold (power) and purple (justice).
The Carnival season actually begins the 12th night after Christmas, on January 6th, the religious holiday called Epiphany, on which Catholics celebrate the three kings (or wise men) presenting gifts to the Christ child. At this time, King Cakes are served, marking the beginning of the balls and smaller parades.
Then, beginning 12 days before Fat Tuesday, nightly parades are held, which get bigger and more elaborate as the big festival day approaches. These parades are a mix of royal ceremony, teasing giveaways, fantasy and excitement—celebrating the “pleasures” of life. In the final week, festivities intensify in New Orleans and surrounding communities, culminating in the biggest parades. Mardi Gras is so popular that it is accepted as a holiday in some parts of the South.
Each krewe’s parade usually has its own theme, such as subjects of history, legends, geography, children’s stories, famous people, entertainment, Greek and Roman mythology and literature, and satirical references to current events.
During these parades, crowds dance behind the floats and watch from the sidelines. Many krewes hold private balls after their parades. The public is invited to the street parades, but most balls are private affairs attended only by members of the krewes.
Celebrations begin early in the morning on Fat Tuesday and continue well into the night, ending promptly at midnight with the start of Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.
Mardi Gras has many traditions designed to keep the spirit of the festival alive from year to year.
One tradition that distinguishes Mardi Gras from other Carnivals is the distribution of “throws” to the crowds. Throws are trinkets that are tossed from the floats by masked and costumed krewe members. The most popular throws consist of strings of beads and items showing the krewe’s logo or parade theme, such as decorated plastic cups, medallion necklaces and colorful, aluminum coins called “doubloons.” The popularity of throws is so great that crowd participation is as much a part of the parades as the krewes that put them on. All along the parade routes, the cry “throw me something mister” can be heard as the crowd tries to persuade krewe members to throw something their way.
Another tradition is the serving of circular cakes called “King Cake.” This custom began in ancient times, when tribes celebrated the arrival of spring by making a cake and putting a bean in it. After the tradition was adopted by Catholicism, legend has it that the cakes were made in a circle to represent the circular route that the wise men supposedly took to find the baby Jesus in order to confuse King Herod and disrupt his plans to kill the Christ child.
Today, King Cakes contain beans or baby figurines (supposedly representing “the Christ child”), and are traditionally served to unmarried women attending a Mardi Gras banquet. King cakes are also popular with office workers; the employee who finds the hidden treasure is obliged to buy the next day’s cake.
Beginning shortly after Christmas, the krewes hold gala balls every night of the Carnival season. Each krewe chooses a king, queen and court from its most prominent families. The distinction of being chosen as “royalty” is highly prized among krewe members. Royalty includes a king, queen, maids, lieutenants, ladies-in-waiting and pages. Each krewe carefully guards the identity of its royalty until Mardi Gras or the day the krewe parades and stages its ball. In recent times, Hollywood actors and other famous celebrities have been chosen as royalty.
There are two types of balls: the “tableau ball” and the “supper dance.” The tableau ball includes royalty, whose names are called out as they make their entrance. Only krewe members and their guests can attend. On the other hand, anyone can buy a ticket to the supper dance. Though royalty does not attend, there is a celebrity monarch, who is king or queen of the parade and entertains guests at the ball.
Worldwide, Mardi Gras (or Carnival) is known as a time for a “no-holds barred” celebration in the spirit of utter abandonment. It is seen as a time to have fun, to cut loose, to “throw down,” to “party till you drop,” to “let the good times roll.”
On Fat Tuesday, revelers in New Orleans jam the streets with non-stop partying. The atmosphere is charged with drunkenness and unbridled sexual activity and perversion. In the French Quarter, homosexuals have costume contests before audiences of thousands. Women lean over balconies and openly expose themselves to anyone who will give beads to them. The practice of revelers engaging in sex with strangers is common. Bourbon Street is the focus of activity because of the numerous music clubs, strip clubs and bars found there. After the festival ends, city streets are so filthy that the following day is jokingly referred to as “Trash Wednesday,” instead of Ash Wednesday.
Despite Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effects, plans were underway for another celebration. As one resident said, “We’ve got to have this party” (USA Today).
Another said, “We owe it to our ancestors and our children to keep this celebration going. We just can’t stop. This is so important for us” (Reuters).
In light of its sordid origin, should Mardi Gras still be viewed as harmless fun? Does God allow Christians to cast off all restraint and participate in its festivities—drunkenness, lewdness, public nudity, homosexuality, illicit sex, revelry and brawling—which He calls “the works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19-21)?
Mardi Gras represents a blend of religion and immorality, steeped in ancient pagan fertility rites. Many of the parades celebrate and honor false gods such as Bacchus and Venus; others promote fornication and drunkenness—conduct that ends marriages, breaks up families and destroys lives! Professing Christians should take heed: Drunkenness, fornication and such reveling are among the kinds of conduct that exclude one from inheriting the kingdom of God (I Cor. 6:9-10).
It is hypocritical for anyone who claims to seek or serve the true God to participate in a festival that originates from paganism and promotes immoral behavior. Not only should Christians not participate in evil, God commands them to avoid even the appearance of evil (I Thes. 5:22). This certainly applies to Mardi Gras.
What about Lent? As noted earlier, the Catholic Church incorporated the 40-day fast that the pagans had been observing and renamed it Lent. This, too, is an unscriptural custom, and should be avoided by anyone striving to obey God. (Read our article “The True Meaning of Lent” to learn more.)
Are those who participate in the wanton revelry of Mardi Gras truly happy? After the partying is over, they must return home and face their problems. Mardi Gras is simply a temporary diversion; it does not take away their troubles. And then there are the additional problems that result from foolish and immoral behavior. Remember: For every cause, there is an effect.
True happiness does not come from unrestrained partying, but from focusing on the interests, cares and concerns of others (Phil. 2:4). True love is showing sincere outgoing concern for others, which is accomplished by serving others. Serving other people brings true and lasting happiness.
At Mardi Gras, people focus on fulfilling their own desires, their own fleshly gratification—lusts. They are concerned with their own pleasure—not the needs of others. That is why so many live such miserable lives—because they are focused on themselves, their needs, their wants.
God shows us the true way to abundant living (John 10:10). His Way produces real joy, peace of mind, prosperity, and all the good things of life. That life can be yours! To learn how, read our article “You Can Live the Abundant Life!”