Mardi Gras, the French for 'fat Tuesday', has got quite a few names. While the English used to call it Shrove Tuesday, or, later as Pancake Day, to the Germans it is Fastnachtkuchen, or, just Fastnacht. Yet, irrespective of this name game, Mardi Gras - or at least its counterparts under different names, is no newcomer in the history of humanity. Take, for instance, the Carnival. This can be regarded as the mother of Mardi Gras traditions, with the origin embedded in ancient Rome. However, around the middle of the second century traditions of the Carnival became popular as a way to feast and act wild before the somber days of Lent. This is still celebrated as a splendid festival across South America and in the Catholic countries of Europe.
Though the timings do vary, different cultures have certain schedules set aside for community jubilation or revelry. And most, if not all, of them have been a celebration of some sort for the changeover of the year. A time of jubilation at the New Year has been traced by anthropologists to prehistoric times and to almost every section of the globe. Often this period was thought to be an intercalary season, that is, a number of days inserted at the year's end to make the lunar calendar coincide with the solar. In a sense, these days were outside time and the ordinary customs and laws held no longer. This is seen in the later Roman feast of the Saturnalia where masters and slaves exchanged places, and as the noted anthropologist Sir James Frazer has observed in 'The Golden Bough', "Feasting that seem to have especially marked this carnival of antiquity, as it went on for 7 days in the streets and public squares and houses of ancient Rome from the 17th to the 23rd of December."
In the festival of Saturnalia the Romans also used to burn the effigy of the king of ancient Saturnalia. The king was an ugly looking personage of Saturn and the master of revels. He suffered a real death in his assumed character when the revels were over. This tradition is present in Carnival in the grotesque looking floats of the Mardi Gras parades even today. This apart, the wild and boisterous revelry on the thoroughfares, the colors and costumes and, of course, the masks featuring this carnival all come as part of the pre-Christian tradition of spring rites.
The first observance of Mardi Gras celebration in its present resemblance took place in the Middle Ages. And it was following the period of Reformation that swept Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries.
With the Reforms, restrictions from many of the ancient Roman Catholic practices were lifted. Thus, much of the causes were removed though the customs lingered. The name Fat Tuesday comes from the custom of parading a fat ox through the streets of Paris on Shrove Tuesday. Another explanation given is that the French name Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday, from the custom of using all the fats in the home before Lent.
Shrove Tuesday, derived its name from the old practice of confessing one's sins on this day in preparation of the holy Lenten season. The verb 'to shrive' means to confess oneself and receive absolution. The three-day period of Sunday, Monday, and Shrove Tuesday, was known as Shrovetide. following which the period of Lent begins.
Although Mardi Gras is basically a Catholic holiday, today it is party for everyone here in United States. This is especially true in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana which can be credited for introducing this tradition in the country.
Mardi Gras first came to New Orleans through French Culture in the year 1699 when the French explorers celebrated the holiday on the Mississippi River. Over the years, the celebration has witnessed growing national attention with many parades and parties coming in to add to its hue and flavor. Despite the Hispanic invasion later the celebration has not lost its original French influence.
However, there is another view. It says that the modern incarnation of Mardi Gras in the U.S. began in Mobile, AL in 1703, with the endeavor of Michael Krafft and the formation of the Cowbellion de Rakin Society. Mobile first celebrated the Mardi Gras Carnival in 1703 when French settlers began the festivities at the Old Mobile Site. Their Mardi Gras celebrations continued until the Civil War. New Orleans' claims to be the origin of American Mardi Gras come from the fact that it is likely that the French & Spanish upper crust of the Louisiana celebrated Mardi Gras as part of their French Catholic heritage long before the first parade in New Orleans in 1857
Whatever be its origin and history, today Mardi Gras is celebrated with much fanfare in many parts of the US and also all over the world in places like Belgium, Brazil, the Caribbean nations, Colombia, France, Germany, Guatemala, India, Italy, Mexico, Panama, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. In the US, the festival is fervidly observed in Louisiana, Alabama, California, and Florida. The French tradition apart, influences of the Germans, as well as the British are evident in the day's customs across the country.