Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday. In the Christian tradition, the forty days prior to Easter constitute Lent, for many a somber spiritual period of fasting and penance. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, and, on the Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras is celebrated. It is a rich and complex psychological, social, and economic phenomenon that takes place in locations all over the Christian world. However, Mardi Gras reaches its zenith in southern Louisiana in February or March.
The concept and the experience of Mardi Gras are part of the larger celebration of carnival. Carnival, loosely translated as "festival of flesh," is actually a season that can last up to two months, whereas Mardi Gras is one day and is usually the apex of the season. While the earliest beginnings of carnival and Mardi Gras remain somewhat murky, it appears that carnival or something like it took place in pagan Rome. Saturnalia, one of several spring rituals, honored Saturn, the god of agriculture. During this seven-day festival, some slaves were granted limited and temporary freedoms and allowed to change roles and clothing with their masters. During this time, it appears they had the privilege to act in ways otherwise unacceptable—even to the point of criticizing their masters. After the seven days of merrymaking, life resumed as before and the social order was once again reestablished.
Carnival's central element of licensed social disruption can be traced through history with the classic example being the riotous fairs and festivals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, particularly England. Some sociologists and historians—Mikhail Bakhtin, Roger Caillois, Terry Eagleton, Peter Stallybrass, and Allon White, for example—have argued that carnivals act as collective catharses allowing the safe release of pent-up aggression against unequal and unjust social orders. While on the surface these activities seem to seriously challenge the establishment, carnivals are purely licensed affairs carefully limited in time and space.
Given the widespread shedding of inhibitions, purposeful violation of social convention, and reversal of roles, it is not surprising that masking is a common element of carnival and Mardi Gras. The timid may become bold, and plebs rulers. Men may become women and vice versa. Obviously, disguises facilitate these inversions. In addition, these actions involve some risk to participants. The anonymity offered by the creative and elaborate costumes is necessary to protect all but the most unacceptable actions.
Moreover, carnivals serve to establish and maintain individual and community identity. Barry Jean Ancelet has documented the ability of southern Louisiana Mardi Gras to encourage commitment to the community through various Mardi Gras activities. Drawing on Clifford Geertz's theory of deep play, Ancelet contends that what may seem like simply colorful and chaotic frenzy may reflect the community's deep-seated realities and concerns. Carrying out playful rituals and maintaining the traditions of Mardi Gras that are often passed down through several generations may be a marker for differentiating between locals and outsiders.
Carnivals, condoned and even encouraged by the order that they mock, typically involve various leisure activities such as storytelling, singing, dancing, eating, and drinking. As might be expected, the consumption of alcoholic beverages at carnival is customary. Not only does the overconsumption of alcohol contribute to risqué behaviors, it is an example of the relaxed attitude of enforcement of society's laws and regulations.
Mardi Gras in Southern Louisiana
While Mardi Gras is celebrated in countries other than the United States (Spain, England, Brazil, and France) and in states other than Louisiana (Texas, Alabama, and California), it is most famous in the Mississippi River delta.
While Mardi Gras is practiced differently in the early 2000s in rural areas and in urban areas, it has a common, although sometimes sketchy, history. The French settled Louisiana in the seventeenth century. Interestingly, they came from different areas of the world. A handful of French explorers traveled from Canada down the Mississippi River to its end in the Gulf of Mexico. Some stayed in the area that is now Louisiana. Shortly thereafter a large contingent of French Canadians from the Acadian region arrived. These Acadians had been forced to flee the areas of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by the Seven Years War. In addition, many French from Haiti fled to what had by now become a haven for their countrymen. The new French establishment at the mouth of the Mississippi was soon drawing a large number of brave souls directly from the mother country. Of course the area was already the homeland of Native American Indians. Over the course of the next century and a half, Africans, as well as a large number of Spanish, arrived in the area. The current population of Louisiana consists largely of Cajuns (historically rural French ancestors) and Creoles (a more inclusive collection of African, American Indian, Spanish, and French).
The French—as well as the other cultures—brought with them their beloved customs, including those related to Mardi Gras. Early Mardi Gras, largely an outdoor festival that included eating, dancing, singing, and drinking, had become increasingly rowdy during its first fifty years. When Spain took control of southern Louisiana for a short period to time, the Spanish attempted to eliminate the festivities, first by mandating revelers to move inside and then by completely banning parties and parades. After the French regained control a couple of years later, Mardi Gras celebrations resumed. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 by the United States and subsequent control of the region, plus the increasingly wild parties in the streets, the future of Mardi Gras was once again in doubt.
Recognizing that something had to be done, citizen groups formed around 1850 to loosely plan and oversee the events. The first of these clubs or krewes, the Mystick Krewe of Comus, established contemporary Mardi Gras in Louisiana. In the following years over 100 large and small krewes would become involved in the celebration.
During its development, two types of Mardi Gras emerged—a rural or country celebration and an urban celebration, the largest of which takes place in New Orleans. Country Mardi Gras, the less broadly known of the two types, consists of small groups of men on foot and horseback who visit local farmhouses in the area. Each group of masked participants begs and generally acts up for the farmers and spectators. After some time of frivolity, the leader of the group makes a request for food. In keeping with tradition, the farmers release a live chicken after which the costumed participants chase, much to the delight of the crowd. After the chicken has been captured and stuffed in a bag, the small procession moves on to another farmhouse, where the process is repeated. By midafternoon, the Mardi Gras runners return to a park for a feast that features a large gumbo from the chickens and other foods that were collected. The ensuing party involves music and drinking and lasts well into the night.
The urban version of Mardi Gras consists of several separate parades that wind their way through the New Orleans area. Elaborate floats, bands, and individuals in wild costumes create a wild party atmosphere for participants and spectators. Three colors (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power) are featured in every parade every year. The tradition of tossing strands of colorful beads to spectators has become a mainstay of the parades. Much has been made of the showing of women's breasts in exchange for the beads, but many contend that this sleazy side of Mardi Gras is limited and receives more attention than is justified.
New Orleans Mardi Gras is billed as the world's largest free party. Neither the state of Louisiana nor the city of New Orleans makes direct financial contributions to the events. There are no corporate sponsorships. Mardi Gras festivities are paid for entirely by the krewes that collect annual membership fees that range from $250 to $850. Local governments do contribute through the provision of law enforcement, crowd control, and refuse collection.
Mardi Gras, in all of its forms in southern Louisiana, has become a famous tourist attraction. The influx of nearly 750,000 visitors generates nearly one-half billion dollars in local spending. In the last few years, New Orleans, its surrounding communities, and the krewes have attempted to offer a balanced event that recognizes the negative impacts on the infrastructures and the less-than-wholesome reputation as well as the positive economic and cultural benefits.
Ancelet, Barry Jean. "Falling Apart to Stay Together: Deep Play in the Grand Marais Mardi Gras." Journal of American Folklore 114, no. 452 (2001): 144–153.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rebelais and His World. Translated by H. Iswolsky. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1968.
Caillois, Roger. Man, Play, and Games. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1961.
Eagleton, Terry. Walter Benjamin: Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. London: Verso, 1981.
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986.
Daniel G. Yoder
MARDI GRAS is the elaborate series of outdoor pageants and indoor tableau balls held annually during the winter social season in the United States, especially in New Orleans and Mobile. The carnival culminates on Fat or Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Rooted in European pre-Lenten revelries, the carnival tradition in the United States began in the colonial period and developed in tandem with racial policies and practices and survives as an extravagant spectacle of excess, decadence, and burlesque. The pageants, each sponsored by one of the many exclusive carnival organizations, are based upon themes drawn from mythology, history, or fiction and are often satiric of contemporary social issues.
See alsoHolidays and Festivals .