The History of Mardi Gras and Carnival

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Podcast Transcript

Every year, before the start of Lent, in hundreds of cities around the world, there is a massive celebration. While the celebrations differ, sometimes dramatically, there are certain elements they all share.

Modern celebrations can often get quite racy, and if you didn’t know it, you’d probably never guess that the origins of the festival actually are religious in nature.

Learn more about Carnival and Mardi Gras, and how the modern celebrations came to be, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’ve done many episodes on the history and origins of holidays and festivals. There is a very large number of them that have some ancient origin which can be traced back to some civilization thousands of years ago. 

Carnival is not such a festival. I’ve found several people who have tried to tie carnival back to something in ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt, but the fact is whatever festivals they had, they were not actual precursors to Carnival. There might be other holidays that have a tenuous connection to Saturnalia or Lupercalia, but I don’t think this is one of them.

There might have been masks that were worn and other revelries, but that is actually pretty general, and I’m just not convinced in this case that there is any sort of direct link. 

Carnival and Mardi Gras, and for brevity, I’m just going to refer to it as Carnival for the rest of the episode as it is a more generic term for the exact same thing, is intimately tied to the Christian religious calendar. 

The date which determines when Carnival will be celebrated is Easter. For those of you who are not in Christian countries, Easter is the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ. 

The date of Easter has been contentious throughout history, and it might be worth its own episode in the future. Suffice it to say for this episode, in the western calendar, Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon, after the spring equinox. 

That means in theory, the earliest possible date for Easter is March 22 and the latest possible date for Easter is April 25.

The period before Easter is known in the Christian calendar as Lent. 

While Easter is a feast and a celebration, Lent is a time for fasting and repentance. It is supposed to represent the 40 days and nights Jesus spent in the desert fasting.  

The last day of Lent, however, is not Easter, but Holy Thursday, which is the Thursday before Easter, also known as Maundy Thursday. Also, Sundays don’t count, because those are supposed to be feast days, and you can’t fast on a feast day.  So that is how you get to 40 days, even though there are more than forty from the start of Lent until Easter.

During Lent, fasting wasn’t so much abstaining from food as it meant abstaining from meat, including eggs and dairy.  Lenten rules for what could or could not be eaten have changed over time and by location. In some places, you could eat whatever you wanted, but only one meal a day. 

Either way, the prohibition of animal products was the traditional way fasting was enforced in most places under the Catholic Church. 

The first day of Lent is known as Ash Wednesday, and it always falls on a Wednesday. It is tradition for Catholics to go to church and have ashes marked on their forehead as a sign of repentance. 

So far, absolutely nothing I’ve mentioned sounds like it has anything to do with a carnival celebration. 

Well, the day before Ash Wednesday is known as Shrove Tuesday. This was the last day you could go nuts before Lent started, and that is exactly what people did. 

Back in the day meat didn’t necessarily store very well, and Lent also meant the start of spring and warmer temperatures. As no one was going to eat any meat for the next six weeks, they basically held a big bash to get rid of all the meat before Lent started.

The word carnival comes either from the Latin phrases “carne levare” which basically means to “remove meat”, or the phrase “carne vale” which means farewell to meat.  I’m using the ecclesial Latin pronunciation, which is what would have been in use when the tradition started. 

Mardi Gras is literally French for “fat tuesday”, which is another term for carnival. 

Carnival as a celebration dates back to about the year 1200, which is one of the reasons why I don’t think there is any ancient pagan origin for this festival. 

The ‘fat’ in Fat Tuesday isn’t a metaphor. Part of the celebration was literally getting rid of sources of fat such as eggs, lard, butter, cheese, and meat. 

One of the oldest and best-known Carnival celebrations takes place in Venice, Italy. 

According to legend, it started in 1162 after a military victory by the Republic of Venice. Everyone went to St. Mark’s square to dance, and it coincided with the start of Lent. 

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Carnival was probably one of the best-known aspects of Venice. Celebrations, costumes, and masks became extremely elaborate. The first documentation of mask-wearing dates back to the 13th century. 

One Venitian tradition was the throwing of ovi odoriferi or scented eggs. They were hollowed-out eggs that were filled with rose water.  However, this was eventually banned because people began filling them with ink and smellier substances. 

The Venice carnival was actually banned in 1797, and there were only smaller private celebrations after that. However, the government brought it back in 1979 as a way to draw tourists. It worked really well, as today there are 3,000,000 people who will come to Venice during Carnival season. 

Today, the creation of Carnival masks is an art form, and there are awards given out for best masks and costumes. There are stores in Venice that will now sell them year-round.

Because Carnival usually takes place in February, most of the best celebrations all take place in warmer climates. You can find carnival celebrations throughout Europe, but they honestly can’t hold a candle to what you will find further south. 

There are many many many cities and countries where you can find Carnival celebrations, and I can’t really go through all of them, so I’m just going to focus on a few of the major celebrations that are worth knowing about. 

The first of which is Trinidad and Tobago. You can find big carnival celebrations all over the Caribbean, but Trinidad’s is by far the largest. It is said that everyone in Trinidad is either celebrating carnival or getting ready for the next one. 

The tradition started in the late 18th century when French plantation owners would celebrate carnival with a masked ball. The slaves who worked on the plantation were not allowed to participate, so they started their own festival known as “Canboulay” which comes from the French term for “burnt cane”, as they would usually burn the cane fields around this time.

When emancipation arrived in 1834, carnival became a unique mix of West African and European traditions. Perhaps the most notable thing which came out of the Trinidad carnival celebrations was calypso music. 

In 1881, the British Authorities on the island restricted carnival celebrations which resulted in the Canboulay Riots. One of the things which were banned was percussion instruments. However, they eventually came back, and when they did in the early 20th century, it was in the form of the bottoms of 55-gallon oil drums. 

This was the origin of the steel drum, which is now the national instrument for the nation of Trinidad, and also for most Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean. 

When I visited Trinidad several years ago, I went in the middle of summer, and already people were working on floats and costumes for the next carnival, which was still months away.

The biggest carnival celebration in the world takes place in Brazil. 

Carnival is celebrated in all 26 states in Brazil. They will usually have street fairs, costumes, and competitions. Probably the highlight of any carnival celebration will be the parade with floats and performing samba schools.

Despite the name, samba schools are actually local clubs and not schools per se. They will build floats, create costumes, and practice performances for musicians, and dancers. A samba school might have a few thousand performers, and the entire year is basically spent getting ready for the carnival parade. 

I really want to single out the carnival celebration which takes place in Rio de Janeiro, which is far and away the largest carnival parade in the world. 

The parade takes place at the Sambadrome, which is a specially built stadium just for the carnival parade. It seats 90,000 people and the parades are televised live on national television. 

The dancing and the costumes and the floats are highly elaborate and there are judges which evaluate the samba schools and pick winners. 

If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend doing a search on Sambadrome and watching some of the videos taken from previous carnival celebrations. 

The last place I want to highly is the Louisiana Mardi Gras celebration. 

The first Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans might have been the first one in the new world. It was a small celebration by French explorers in the area in 1699, with community celebrations being documented as early as 1730. 

It has been the biggest celebration in New Orleans for over 200 years. One of the best early descriptions of the early Mardi Gras came in 1835 by the writer James Creecy. He wrote, 

Shrove Tuesday is a day to be remembered by strangers in New Orleans, for that is the day for fun, frolic, and comic masquerading. All of the mischief of the city is alive and wide awake in active operation. Men and boys, women and girls, bond and free, white and black, yellow and brown, exert themselves to invent and appear in grotesque, quizzical, diabolic, horrible, strange masks, and disguises. Human bodies are seen with heads of beasts and birds, beasts and birds with human heads; demi-beasts, demi-fishes, snakes’ heads and bodies with arms of apes; man-bats from the moon; mermaids; satyrs, beggars, monks, and robbers parade and march on foot, on horseback, in wagons, carts, coaches, cars, &c., in rich confusion, up and down the streets, wildly shouting, singing, laughing, drumming, fiddling, fifeing, and all throwing flour broadcast as they wend their reckless way.

In 1856, the first krew was formed. Krewes are the Louisiana equivalent of what samba schools are in Brazil. They are clubs that meet throughout the year to prepare floats for Mardi Gras. 

One of the biggest features of the parades are throwing objects, usually beads, but sometimes toys, from the floats. 

Today there are many krewes which structured like businesses. The biggest celebration, and the one which draws the most tourists, takes place on Bourbon Street. 

There is a very big difference between Mardi Gras celebrations found in New Orleans and those found in rural central Louisiana, in Cajun country. 

The Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations are usually centered around the Courir de Mardi Gras. I got to take part in one of these back in 2018, and it was a blast. 

The floats are not nearly as elaborate. In fact, most of them are just trailers filled with people drinking, and usually a portable toilet so no one has to leave the float. 

The main even is the courir, or run. Each Mardi Gras parade will have a captain who is usually on horseback, and everyone will usually be wearing a Mardi Gras costume. 

The captain will release a chicken, and everyone has to run after it to try and catch it. The parade will stop, everyone gets off their float, and then the run will start.

I spoke with several people who took this extremely seriously and wanted to catch the chicken at least once in their life. 

The chicken is used in a community gumbo in the evening, the rest of the ingredients are begged along the parade route. 

The other thing I got to experience a few days before was a boucherie. 

A boucherie is a community hog butchering where every single part of the pig is cooked and consumed….and I do mean everything. It was really one of the best food experiences I’ve ever had. 

True story: when I was there, I also met Anthony Bourdain for the first and only time. He was staying at the same hotel I was in and I’d see him every morning smoking and texting as his crew was getting ready to shoot for the day. He passed away just a few months later. 

So, if you are celebrating Carnival or Mardi Gras, take a moment and appreciate how this celebration of eating up all the remaining meat, turned into a fantastic celebration of music, dancing, costumes, and floats.