Just the name Mardi Gras conjures up images of drunken, bead-wearing revelers dancing through the streets of New Orleans. But how, and when, did this huge mid-winter party get started? Here's a look at the history of Mardi Gras throughout the ages and across the nations.
Historians tell us that the ancient Romans probably kicked off the Mardi Gras celebrations. Their mid-February festival known as Lupercalia honored the god Lupercus, alternately known as the god of fertility and the god of agriculture and pastoral shepherds. In either case, his party definitely had Mardi Gras-like qualities, including days of feasting and drinking. And a little enjoying the "pleasures of the flesh", probably, too -- in fact, the term Carnival, often synonymous with Mardi Gras, is derived from the Latin expression meaning "farewell to the flesh."
Like most of the ancient Roman and Greek festivals, Lupercalia was adopted and adapted by the Church as a way of subtly converting the local pagans to Christianity. The carnival-like celebration of Lupercalia thus morphed into a last "fling" before the beginning of the Lenten period. Lent refers to the 40 days of pertinence and purification celebrated between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. During Lent, the religiously faithful refrain from a number of indulgences of the "flesh", including eating meat.
What began as a Roman-based celebration quickly spread across the European continent. By medieval times, lords were hosting carnivals prior to Lent in honor of the conscription of their new knights. Each region and country celebrated their own traditions, but all were indulgent. In England, for example, pancake feasts were served -- a tradition that lasts until today. Shrove Tuesday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, is widely known in the UK as "Pancake Tuesday" and is celebrated with pancake-eating competition and pancake races.
In France, this period of revelry before Lent was especially raucous. In fact, the term Mardi Gras is a French expression meaning "Fat Tuesday" -- likely referring to the indulgent nature of the pre-Lenten celebration. The name may have been more than just allegorical, however. Ancient pagans often marked their fertility ritual by parading a fattened ox through the town before sacrificing it.
It was also the French who brought the celebration to America. Many historians believe the party crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1699, on the ship of a French explorer named Sieur d'Iberville. The Frenchman landed in what is today Louisiana, just south of New Orleans, the heart of America's modern-day Mardi Gras celebrations. In fact, his landing is believed to have coincided with the French celebration of Mardi Gras, explaining his choice of name for his point of entry: Point du Mardi Gras.
Other historians, however, dispute the d'Iberville connection, contending that it was the early French settlers to Louisiana who introduced Mardi Gras to America. Regardless of the precise origin, Mardi Gras can clearly be attributed to a Franco-influence. By the mid 1820s, Mardi Gras was firmly rooted in the New Orleans culture. Today, the city's celebrations are considered one of America's biggest parties, with towns and cities throughout the Gulf Coast Region getting in on the fun.