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The Many Meanings of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras or Carnival is an age-old celebration deeply rooted in ancient pagan and European festival traditions. While scholars disagree about the connections (or lack thereof) between Carnival and the ancient Roman spring rites of Saturnalia and Lupercalia, we know that the Christian church leaders sought to neutralize the rowdy Roman festival by incorporating it into the newly created Christian calendar early in the fifth century. Sometime around 600 Pope Gregory deemed that the Easter would be observed the first Sunday following the vernal equinox. In doing so, he defined the proceeding forty-day period as Lent.

Adapting pagan celebrations to Christianity, the Italian spring festival became known as "Carnelevamen" ("consolation of the flesh"). Soon, this translated into the Italian "carnevale," "carnevale" in French, "carnaval" in Spanish and "carnival" in English— all signifying "farewell to the flesh." Tuesday before Ash Wednesday became known as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Fools Day, and Shrove Tuesday (among other terms), and it represented the last day of feasting and pleasure seeking before the onset of Lent. Of course it would take quite some time before Christian efforts would prove successful (if they ever did) in convincing people to abandon their pagan ways.

With the celebration culminating on Fat Tuesday, communities across much of Europe (and later the Americas) typically engaged in exhibitions of public debauchery, orgiastic partying and often, violence. For their part, Romans in the seventh and eighth centuries communed with pre-Christian gods in the streets and local theaters. Countless observers witnessed lavish spectacles involving some 20,000 performers in the Coliseum. Not to be outdone, Parisians paraded live (and sometimes paper maché) bulls known as the Boeuf Gras through the city’s central streets and then masqueraded long into the night at exquisite balls. Once enthusiastically endorsed by the French royalty, Mardi Gras after the 1789 Revolution was thought to be an undignified event and suspended before being revived by Napoleon in 1805.

Meantime, French colonists in Louisiana had begun celebrating Mardi Gras sometime in the mid-eighteenth century. Although the earliest observances of Carnival in the Americas are unclear, the first documented celebration in New Orleans was in 1743 when residents organized various Carnival balls in honor of the arriving governor Marquis de Vaudreuil. Testifying to the unique character of the city’s creole inhabitants, the festival continued even as New Orleans temporarily became part of the Spanish American Empire (1763-1800) and then the United States after the Louisiana in 1803.

Equally famous, Mardi Gras in Rio de Janeiro began sometime in the seventeenth century. Taking to the streets, cariocas took part in a boisterous street party known as entrudo. Fed up with the ritualized water fights and rowdy revelry undertaken largely by the city’s popular classes, colonial officials tried unsuccessfully on several occasions to put an end to the celebration. In imperial Brazil (1822-89) the Carioca elite sought again to tame Carnival by hosting European styled masked balls. Meanwhile, Carnival clubs organized in various neighborhoods began creating elaborate floats and costumes around 1850. By the turn of the twentieth century, this practice had grown significantly. With the popularization of the samba (and soon samba schools) in the 1920s, street parading become a permanent part of Rio’s well-known pre-Lenten tradition.

Carnival in the Mexican Gulf Port town of Veracruz is thought to have evolved out of various Corpus Christi celebrations sometime during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. References by church officials and travelers to residents dancing the Afro-Caribbean chuchumbé in the streets and partying in popular neighborhoods located just outside the city walls give us some indication, however faint, of pre-Lenten activities. Similar to efforts elsewhere in the hemisphere during the mid to late nineteenth century, elites occasionally tried to restrict–and sometimes even ban–the festival. This proved to be the case in Veracruz in 1867 and then again during the extended rule of dictator Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911). Following the revolution of 1910-17, however, Veracruz residents (porteños) revived Carnival in 1925 and the celebration continues to this day.

As with the many European celebrations past and present, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro and Veracruz become stages upon which Mardi Gras mayhem is performed. Residents enact all kinds of satirical dramas, take part in various competitions and march in parades costumed as cross dressers, devils, fools, wild animals and other characters. Each year a Carnival queen and king are selected. Usually, the queen is chosen from a pool of local debutantes. The king is typically an older man appointed because of his civic leadership and contributions to local society. In addition, a Carnival effigy (usually a fat, jolly personage) is often designated to serve as festival symbol. This figure takes on various guises such as "Juan Carnaval," (Mexico), "Don Carnal," (Spain) Signore Carnivale" (Italy) and represents all that exists in opposition to Lent (who is sometimes depicted as a skinny, serious woman). Ultimately, "Carnival" is subjected to a mock trial at the end of Mardi Gras, convicted, hung and then buried along with the "sinful ways" of the community. With this the festival is over and the advent of Lent declared.

Similar to the pagan rituals which preceded it, Mardi Gras signals a change of season as winter gradually gives way to spring. In this vein, the festival can be appreciated as a fertility rite with participants dancing, chanting, feasting and celebrating in hope of aiding the coming year’s growing season. In certain cultures celebrants imagine themselves cavorting with the dead in this party atmosphere–an enthusiastic communion (realized in part through masking and other symbolic rites) thought to contribute additional blessings to future harvests.

Carnival has traditionally provided an opportunity to acknowledge (even flaunt) and then (during the ensuing season of Lent) rid the community of harmful elements. The audacious cycle of bingeing and purging fulfills— some say— a higher purpose: to help maintain a perspective on one’s humanity and sense of belonging. Carnival, in other words, is a celebration that, despite appearances, is ultimately designed preserve the local social order. Certainly the more recent commercialization of Carnival has complicated this social function as countless tourists now flock to huge citywide festivals orchestrated in Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Veracruz. Carnival today is thus not only a local celebration with religious underpinnings, but also big business.

Yet as almost anyone who has engaged in the pre-Lenten craziness in any of these cities can attest, Carnival’s encouraging one to indulge temporarily in a near gluttonous
consumption of food, flesh and earthly delights truly has some kind of magical effect. Yielding more than simply a hangover or guilty conscience, Carnival’s power (contrary to legions of Protestant naysayers) is an utterly life affirming holiday and an essential "date" on the Euro-American cultural calendar.


Andrew Grant Wood

ANDREW GRANT WOOD, the author of Revolution in the Street (Scholastic Review, 2001), is writing a biography of Augustin Lara. He teaches Latin American history at the University of Tulsa.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2004

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