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History of Mardi Gras: The origins of Carnival and how it’s celebrated around the world

The holiday is believed to date back to Pagan customs and traditions, but celebrations have been shared by many other cultures across thousands of years.

Mardi Gras 2024: Qué es, origen y por qué se celebra en USA
Nodar ChernishevGetty Images

This week cities around the world will become splashed with color as Mardi Gras celebrations kick into action. The date for Mardi Gras this year is Tuesday, 13 February and it will be marked with huge celebrations in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro and Venice, amongst countless other cities.

The origins of Mardi Gras are hotly contested and are most likely the result of a convergence of various festivals and customs. In recent centuries the festival has been established as a Christian holiday to mark the start of Lent. However the history of Mardi Gras is much more varied and is thought to date back thousands of years.

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How did Mardi Gras start?

Mardi Gras takes place in the early spring, at the start of the period of Lent observed by Christians. However, thousands of years ago it is thought to have originated from a tradition of Pagan festivals that mark the beginning of spring and celebrate fertility.

Comparisons have been drawn between Mardi Gras and the Roman festival Lupercalia, which was celebrated on 15 February in ancient Rome. That festival was a day of bloody celebration complete with animal sacrifices, but was also imbued with ideas of fertility.

These Pagan festivals became longstanding traditions with huge significance in local custom. They were deemed so important that, upon the arrival of Christianity to Rome, religious leaders decided to involve the ancient traditions in their new religion.

Given the importance of spring to the Christian faith, those traditional festivals were incorporated into a celebration of life and rebirth that heralded the start of Lent. Different branches of Christianity mark this day in different ways and Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, and Ash Wednesday are all related to the Mardi Gras celebration.

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What does the name ‘Mardi Gras’ mean?

The original Pagan celebrations were not known as Mardi Gras and that name was only added when the festival reached France. The name translates as ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French due to the excessive nature of the holiday.

The period of Lent is often observed with an act of sacrifice to remember the 40 days that Jesus Christ spent fasting in the desert. For a period the Catholic Church is thought to have banned the consumption of meats and rich foods during Lent, so Mardi Gras became an opportunity for a final lavish blow-out. Hence, ‘Fat Tuesday’.

The celebration is believed to have landed in the Americas in 1699. French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Oberville settled in the area that is now New Orleans and the tradition took root there. The city of New Orleans hosted its first Mardi Gras parade in 1837 and it now boasts one of the biggest such celebrations in the world.