Actually, it is a lot of both…
Mardi Gras can be traced back thousands of years to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, as well as the ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. When Christianity arrived in Rome, the leaders of the time decided that it would be easier to incorporate these traditions into the new faith rather than try and abolish them all together. The result was Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday”, which is celebrated on the day before Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday kicks off the 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday known as Lent. Historically, Lent was celebrated by eating only fish and fasting. In preparation for this, the cupboards had to be cleaned out so things didn’t go to waste. People would gather up all the meat, milk, cheese, eggs, etc. that they had remaining in their home and they would all come together and have a feast…why toss it out when you can eat it all???
As Christianity spread throughout Europe so did this celebration. It was in France that the day before Ash Wednesday came to be known as Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday”. Some cultures refer to this celebration as “Carnival” which is believed to derive from a Medieval Latin custom carnelevarium which means to take away or remove meat.
Around the world, pre-Lenten festivities are still practiced today in those areas that have a significant Roman Catholic population. Brazil has a week long celebration they call Carnival, Quebec City in Canada hosts the Quebec Winter Carnival, and Italy celebrates with the Venice Carnevale which dates back to the 13th century. The Germans celebrate Karneval, Fastnacht or Fasching while Denmark has Fastevlan.
Historians believe that the first Mardi Gras in the United States was held on March 3, 1699 when French explorers Iberville and Bienville landed just south of what is now New Orleans. They held a small celebration upon their landing and dubbed that spot Point du Mardi Gras. These celebrations continued until the Spanish took control of New Orleans at which point they were banned and did not return until Louisiana became a US State in 1812.
It wasn’t until 1837 that the first recorded New Orleans Mardi Gras parade took place, and the tradition has continued ever since. In 1857, a secret society of New Orleans businessmen called the Mistick Krewe of Comus organized a torch-lit parade complete with marching bands and rolling floats which set the tone for how Mardi Gras is celebrated today. Krewes are still a part of the Louisiana celebration, along with the tossing of beads and trinkets, the wearing of masks, decorating floats, and eating of King Cake. While Louisiana is the only state in which Mardi Gras is a legal holiday, the celebration has spread to other states including Alabama and Mississippi where they celebrate with their own events and traditions.
As you can see, Mardi Gras is both a huge party and a Christian celebration. Much like our modern day Christmas, it depends on your perspective and how you choose to celebrate.
Hugs & Blessings,