North Texas Daily

The history and evolution of Mardi Gras

The history and evolution of Mardi Gras

The history and evolution of Mardi Gras
February 16
23:49 2015

Kayleigh Bywater / Staff Writer

When most people think of Mardi Gras, they think of yelling for beads, New Orleans and crawfish. With parades and parties happening weeks before the actual date for Mardi Gras, many say it is a time to celebrate and party with fellow friends and community members.

However, Mardi Gras was not always an excuse for having a day to party and drink.

“Mardi Gras is Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday,” history professor Richard McCaslin said. “Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent in the Catholic faith, which is 40 days of fasting in order to remember Christ wandering in the wilderness. It is pretty much a Catholic festival to have a good time before you spend so many weeks in fasting or other denial.”

A history of Mardi Gras

On March 2, 1699, the Eve before the holiday of Ash Wednesday, a French-Canadian explorer named Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville landed 60 miles south of New Orleans, Louisiana. He named this plot of land “Pointe du Mardi Gras,” which is French for Mardi Gras Point.

In 1702, Bienville established Fort Louis de la Louisiane, which is now present-day Mobile, Alabama. This is where the very first Mardi Gras celebration was held in 1703.

During these celebrations, a secret society called the Boeuf Gras Society paraded through the streets on Fat Tuesday. Sixteen men would push a giant bull’s head on wheels, and at night a man would go along the street with an actual bull that was covered in a white cloth. This signified the upcoming Lenten meat fast on Ash Wednesday.

By the 1740s, Mardi Gras had changed. When New Orleans was established in 1718, people began celebrating Mardi Gras with grand societal balls.

In the 1830s, people started celebrating with floats and other outdoor events. Festival goers carried torches and Krewes, organizations that put on the celebrations, started emerging.

“Mardi Gras is celebrated in layers,” McCaslin said. “From happy family gatherings in order to eat and laugh to small-town parades all the way to the major blowouts of the big Krewes in New Orleans.”

Simon Campbell serves as president of Walnut Off the Square, a local organization that plans themed community gatherings. He said Mardi Gras started gaining popularity once celebrations became a society event.

“I think the shift came as the religious component grew from celebrations with grand balls and having a reason to dress up,” Campbell said. “Much of the celebration, such as the parades and parties, happen in the days leading up to the actual Fat Tuesday.”

Celebrations and traditions

Since then, Mardi Gras has grown into an event that is celebrated abroad.

“I am not sure it is entirely important for everyone to celebrate Mardi Gras, but it is a good excuse to have fun,” Campbell said. “People like traditions and Mardi Gras has grown into a tradition that encompasses fun, competition, history, religion, food, drink and a lot of people.”

Campbell said Krewes on floats toss “throws” out to the crowd. These include things like beads, toys and doubloons.

In the past, Campbell said masks were a way to cover up class constraints and allow everyone celebrating to be on a level playing field. In modern tradition, it is a trend to wear masks during Mardi Gras because it adds to the celebration and mystery behind the event.

“I think Mardi Gras is celebrated around the world in one form or another as a means of escape,” Campbell said. “I think it gives people a chance, excuse or reason to drop the responsibilities of everyday life and play for a few days like they did when they were children.”

A time of change

Photography freshman Kayleigh Kincer said although Mardi Gras is a time to celebrate and have fun, people should also recognize the true meaning of why it was started.

“I feel like the celebration aspect of Mardi Gras has been skewed,” Kincer said. “People can and are going to take things and make it their own. For example, Christmas is seen to Christians as the celebration of the birth of Jesus, whereas to others it is about Santa bringing them presents.”

Although the thought of Mardi Gras being celebrated with religious reasons has been put on the back burner recently, McCaslin said this does not mean that it cannot be celebrated.

“I like the combination of fun and religious observance,” McCaslin said. “We forget both all too often in the modern world, and it is important for people to have a great time while also holding firm to what they believe.”

Featured Image: A float drives down the street in New Orleans for the Mardi Gras festival in 2012. Mardi Gras usually takes place during the month of February, 47 days before Easter. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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