Monday, February 21, 2011

Mardi Gras: a History by Sheila Shafie

Some people say our Mardi Gras is almost as big of a celebration as the one in New Orleans. But, what most people don't know is--there is a ton of history behind all of those beads. 

The term Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday". Sounds like a funny name, but it refers to something a bit more serious. For many people, Fat Tuesday is the last night of eating rich, fatty, and (typically) un-healthy foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season, which is what we now know as Ash Wednesday. 

Lent is 40 days of fasting and abstinence, which may seem to be never-ending for those participating in it, who have given up their guilty pleasures. Did you know that the celebration of Mardi Gras goes all the way back to early Roman times? 

Nowadays, the most popular Mardi Gras celebrations take place closer to Mardi Gras itself. However, in the past, Christians traditionally began celebrating on January 6. They called it "Carnival". This day is known to Christians as the Epiphany. “Carnival” is Latin for "farewell to the flesh". On the Epiphany, people often indulge in a sweet, dessert-like bread by the name of King's cake. This dessert is often served around Mardi Gras. Some say that King’s cake used to be shaped in a circle to imitate the circular paths that the three wise men took to find Jesus when he was a baby. 

So, where does throwing beads come from? You would be surprised to know that it also comes from religious traits. As odd as it may sound, the beads are supposed to represent the gifts that the three wise men gave to Jesus. 

So, who invented Mardi Gras? Long ago, the Le Moyne brothers, Pierre and Jean, brought Mardi Gras to America. This was all the way back in the 17th century. King Louis XIV sent the brothers to this continent to claim "Louisiane", which is what we now know as the states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. The brothers expedition started on the Mississippi River in March of 1699. They continued upstream for a while. Only a day later, the brothers arrived to a spot around 60 miles down the river from, you guessed it, New Orleans. It has been known for it's tremendous celebrations ever since.  The tradition of Mardi Gras only grew larger over the years. 

“Krewes” were soon formed, which planned the parades that are now affiliated with the partying all over our nation. So, why the colors purple, green and gold? Way back in 1872, the Krewe’s King (the king of the celebrators) gave Mardi Gras its colors. These colors represent justice, power and faith. 

So, there's just a bit of background information to think about before you head down to Soulard with your friends. If you plan on participating in Lent, make sure you get your last bit of indulging at Mardi Gras this year.

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