Mardi Gras is the last day of the festive period of Carnival. Carnival is celebrated in many parts of the world, including Italy, France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, United States, Poland, UK, and more! It has many names around the world, but all refer to the time of partying, parades, and good food before the Christian fasting period of Lent begins.
What is Mardi Gras? What does Mardi Gras Celebrate?
Mardi Gras is the period of celebration before the somber, fasting period of Lent begins for many Christians.
The length of the celebrations varies from country to country. But, traditionally, the French celebrated Mardi Gras from the feast of the Epiphany (when the Three Kings visited the Baby Jesus) until Ash Wednesday.
Traditional French celebrations included masquerade balls that were held by a different family each weekend from Epiphany until Ash Wednesday.
This could mean up to a month or two of celebrations!
In many countries today, the Mardi Gras celebrations are limited to the day or weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday
What does Mardi Gras mean?
Mardi Gras means “fat Tuesday” in French, and specifically refers to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
This was the last day for people to use up all of the meat and animal products in their homes (eggs, milk, butter, etc), because Lent was a time of fasting from these items.
While it specifically refers to one day, the name Mardi Gras typically refers to the whole period of festivities as well.
What does Carnival mean?
Carnival, or Carnevale, is the Italian name for this period of celebration between Epiphany and Lent. It is the name most commonly used in predominantly Catholic countries.
It is said to derive from the Latin “carne levare” meaning “goodbye meat” or “meat be gone”. This refers to the fact meat was not eaten during Lent. (Nowadays, meat is not eaten on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent.)
In places that have Anglican influence, the main celebration is Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.
How are Mardi Gras and Carnival celebrated?
Many places celebrate Mardi Gras and Carnival with parades, dancing, and music.
Some of the celebrations are so historic and/or flamboyant, they draw huge crowds of visitors.
For example, Brazil is said to draw 70% of its’ visitors during the Carnival period. The Carnival of Biche in Belgium and the Carnival of Granville in France are recognized for their cultural importance by UNESCO.
Mardi Gras in the United States
New Orleans has the most famous Mardi Gras celebration in the US. Although many traditionally French areas celebrate it (and it has been adopted elsewhere).
New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions
Mardi Gras found its way to the US by the Le Moyne brothers who were sent from France to defend the French claim to Louisiane, an area covering modern Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and part of Texas.
The now famous New Orleans’ parades were first recorded in 1837. These parades run for the two weeks before Ash Wednesday.
The parades are organized by different “Krewes” or social clubs and the routes for each are generally the same from one year to the next. Many parades include decorated floats. Small items, particularly colored beads, are often thrown from the floats to the crowds watching. Alongside the floats, parade-goers dress up in costume.
Traditional Cajun and Creole dishes are popular food choices during Mard Gras celebrations in New Orleans. Here are some favorites:
On the sweet side, look out for beignets and king cake, as well as bananas Foster.
Mardi Gras in other parts of the States
Other large Mardi Gras celebrations include Mobile, Alabama; Galveston, Texas; and Pensacola, Florida.
Mobile, Alabama has the oldest organized Mardi Gras in the US, recorded as far back as 1703. In Mobile mystic societies organize parades with large, colorful floats, balls (including masquerade balls) and other events. It was actually people from one of Mobile’s societies who started the first Krewe in New Orleans.
Carnevale in Italy
Italian Carnevale is thought to have its roots in pre-Roman pagan mid-winter celebrations. Over time, the celebrations have merged with Christian pre-Lenten celebrations.
Carnevale is celebrated in a number of Italian cities. One of the most famous is the masked balls and parades in Venice, which were first recorded as far back as 1268. Over the years, the authorities have tried to restrict the festivities, particularly the wearing of masks. But, these days, the masks are probably the best-known part, with many being very elaborate.
In Ivrea, Italy, the highlight of the carnival period is a reenactment of the “Battle of the Oranges”. This battle was originally between the people and troops in the Middle Ages. It’s the largest food fight in Italy.
Carnival in Brazil
Brazil’s carnival runs from the Friday before Ash Wednesday until noon on Ash Wednesday, when Lent officially begins. The celebrations differ from one city to the next, but virtually all include colorful, musical parades organized by different local groups.
The type of music varies in the different regions, with many being variations on samba, and all come from the Afro-Brazilian heritage. Some of the bigger parades, such as in Rio which is in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest in the world, are intended to be viewed by the public while others encourage people to join in.
There’s plenty of street food available along carnival routes, such as grilled meat on sticks, “pao de queijo” (cheese bread balls), and sweet treats like brigadeiros.
Many people enjoy “feijoida”, a bean and meat stew which is one of Brazil’s best-known dishes during Carnivale.
Along the coast, plenty of fish dishes such as “moqueca baiana“, a fish stew.
Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago celebrates carnival for months, with the biggest days being the three days before Ash Wednesday. As part of the celebration, there is a steel pan drum competition with the winner chosen the Saturday before Ash Wednesday.
On the Sunday, a Calypso Monarch is crowned, also following a competition. Different bands pick their Calypso King and Queen who join the bands in two days of parades. The kings and queens are often dressed in elaborate, beautifully-decorated costumes.
On the Monday and Tuesday, the mas (masquerade) bands perform. Typically on the Monday, they wear half costume before the main festivities on Tuesday with full costumes and body paint. There’s another competition here, with a Road March King or Queen crowned for the singer of the most-played song.
You’ll find many festival/street foods alongside the festivities, like corn soup, roti bread, and “doubles“(curried chickpeas over a flatbread called barra).
You’ll also see other local favorites like “chow” (fruit seasoned with chili, cilantro, and garlic).
Fasching, Karneval or Fastnacht in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland
The German-speaking area might have the longest celebration period, with it officially starting on November 11th (at 11.11am) and running right through the winter.
The festivities have different names in the different regions – the East and South of Germany and Austria call it Fasching, most of the rest of Germany calls it Fastnacht apart from the Rheinland area where it is called Karneval.
The Rheinland carnivals are probably the largest, with Cologne, Mainz, and Dusseldorf all well known. In this area, the big day is Rosenmontag (“Rose Monday”), the Monday before Ash Wednesday. On this day there are parades and performances of music, comedy, and dance put on by local carnival clubs. Many dress up in traditional costumes if they are part of the parades.
Maslenitsa in Russia
The Russian Maslenitsa has both pagan ties as an end of winter celebration, and also Orthodox Christian ties, as it is the week before Lent.
For Orthodox Christians, Lent begins on the Monday rather than Wednesday, and Maslenitsa, known as “Butter Week”, “Cheese Week” or “Crepe Week” is the week before.
The most characteristic food is blini, thin crepe-like pancakes that are round like the sun. This is partly as eggs, butter and milk are still allowed that week, unlike meat which is given up a week earlier under Orthodox Lent.
Since Maslenitsa was officially not allowed under Soviet rule, the celebrations were more family-oriented during this period. Now the traditional outdoor celebrations which include sledding, snowball fights, skating and sleigh rides have returned. Since there are fewer people following the traditional Lenten restrictions nowadays, you may find shashlik (kebab) vendors at the celebrations. Although in theory meat still isn’t part of the tradition.
Many places have a Lady Maslenitsa mascot, a straw figure that symbolizes winter. On the last day of the celebration, it is burned in a bonfire to signify the end of winter.
There are many other places that hold large celebrations, like various cities in France, the Netherlands, Portugal and many, many more.
Many places have distinct food traditions as well, such as pancakes on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday in the UK (and other places). The British pancakes are like crepes and the most traditional way is to serve them with lemon and sugar.
In Sweden, sweet rolls filled with cream, called “semla” are eaten on the same day.
In Poland, you’d enjoy “paczki“, filled doughnuts, on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Mardi Gras, Carnival – the many names are as endless as the many traditions. But they nearly all have a celebration with music and food and a love of life.
Do you have any traditions in your family or where you live during this period?