A Potted history of Mardi Gras carnival
During the Second Century, around mid-February (15th February in the Julian calendar) Ancient Romans would observe a circus-type festival that they called the Lupercalia, in many ways similar to the present day Mardi Gras. This festival honored the Roman God, Lupercus, a pastoral Diety associated with Faunus or the Satyr, although the celebrations were more like Saturnalia.
Although the name Lupercus is derived from the Latin Lupus (meaning "wolf"), the original meaning of the word as it applies to Roman religion has become obscured over the passage of time, but may relate to the suckling and raising of the founders of Rome (Romulus & Remus) by a mystical she wolf.
When Christianity arrived in Rome, the leaders of the early Church decided it would be more prudent to incorporate certain aspects of such rituals into the new faith rather than attempt to abolish them altogether. (as has happened in new religions all over the world). This gave a Christian interpretation to the ancient custom and the Carnival became a time of abandon and merriment which preceded the Lenten period (a symbolic Christian penitence of 40 days commencing on Ash Wednesday and ending at Easter). During this time, there would be feasting which lasted several days and participants would indulge in voluntary madness by donning masks, clothing themselves in the likeness of spectres and generally giving themselves up to Bacchus (wine) and Venus (sex). All aspects of pleasure were considered to be allowable during the Carnival celebration and today's modern festivites are thought by some to be more reminiscent of the Roman Saturnalia rather than Lupercalia, or be linked to even earlier Pagan festivals.
From Rome, the celebration spread to other European countries. In medieval times, a similar-type festivity to that of the present day Mardi Gras was given by monarchs and lords prior to Lent in order to ceremoniously conscript new knights into service and hold feasts in their honor. The landed gentry would also ride through the countryside rewarding peasants with cakes (thought by some to be the origin of the "King Cake" of New Orleans), coins (perhaps the origin of present day gifts of Mardi Gras doubloons) and other trinkets (maybe beads). In Germany, there still remains a Carnival similar to the one held in New Orleans. Known as Fasching, the celebrations begin on Twelfth Night and continue until Shrove Tuesday. To a lesser degree, this festivity is still celebrated in Spain and France.
A Carnival season was also celebrated in England until the Nineteenth Century, originating as a type of "renewal" festival that incorporated fertility motifs and ball games which frequently turned into riots between opposing villages, followed by feasts of pancakes and the drinking of alcohol. The preparation and consumption of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (also known as "Pancake Tuesday " or "Pancake Day " and occurring annually between February 2 and March 9, depending upon the date of Easter) is still a tradition in the United Kingdom, where pancake tossing and pancake races (during which a pancake must be tossed a certain number of times, whilst running) are still popular. One of the most famous of such competitions, which takes place in Olney in Buckinghamshire, is said to date from 1445. It is a race for women only and for those who have lived in the Parish for at least three months. An apron and head-covering are requisite. The course is 415 yards and the pancake must be tossed at least three times during the race. The winner receives a kiss from the Ringer of the Pancake Bell and a prayer book from the local vicar. "Shrove" is derived from the Old English word "shrive," which means to "confess all sins."
It is generally accepted that Mardi Gras went to America in 1699 with the French explorer, Sieur d'Iberville. The festival had been celebrated as a major holiday in Paris since the Middle Ages. Iberville sailed into the Gulf of Mexico and, from there, launched an expedition along the Mississippi River. By March 3, 1699, Iberville had set up a camp on the West Bank of the River...about 60 miles South of the present day City of New Orleans in the State of Louisiana. Since that day was the very one on which Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France, Iberville named the site Point du Mardi Gras in honor of the festival. According to some sources, however, the Mardi Gras of New Orleans began in 1827 when a group of students who had recently returned from school in Paris donned strange costumes and danced their way through the streets. The students had first experienced this revelry while taking part in celebrations they had witnessed in Paris. In this version, it is said that the inhabitants of New Orleans were swiftly enraptured by the enthusiasm of the youths and quickly followed suit. Other sources maintain that the Mardi Gras celebration originated with the arrival of early French settlers to the State of Louisiana. Nevertheless, it is known that from 1827 to 1833, the New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebrations became more elaborate, culminating in an annual Mardi Gras Ball. Although the exact date of the first revelries cannot be determined, the Carnival was well-established by the middle of the Nineteenth Century when the Mystick Krewe of Comus presented its 1857 Torchlight Parade with a theme taken from "Paradise Lost" written by John Milton.
In French, "Mardi Gras" literally means "Fat Tuesday," so named because it falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, the last day prior to Lent...a 40-day season of prayer and fasting observed by the Roman Catholic Church (and many other Christian denominations) which ends on Easter Sunday. The origin of "Fat Tuesday" is believed to have come from the "using up" of fats and excess rich foods before the fasting started, or possibly the ancient Pagan custom of parading a fat ox through the town streets. Such Pagan holidays were filled with excessive eating, drinking and general bawdiness prior to a period of fasting.
Since the modern day Carvinal Season is sandwiched between Christmas and Lent, with Christmas Day being December 25 on the Gregorian Calendar as set by the Roman Catholic Church, this means that other Holy Days are "floating" in nature (movable feasts). Easter always falls on a Sunday, but it can be any Sunday from March 23 through April 25, its actual date being the Sunday which follows the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox.
Shrove Tuesday - Mardi Gras is always 47 days prior to this alloted Sunday (the 40 days of Lent plus seven Sundays). The beginning of the Carnival Season itself, however, is also fixed...being January 6, which is the Feast of the Ephiphany, otherwise known as Little Christmas or Twelfth Night. Since the date of Mardi Gras thus varies, the length of the Carnival Season also varies accordingly from year-to-year. The origin of the word "Carvinal" is from the Latin for "farewell to the flesh," or
carn-caro levare "removal of flesh" a time when one is expected to forego earthly pleasures prior to the restrictions of the Lenten Season, and may also be derived from the feasts of the Middle Ages known as carnis levamen or "solace of the flesh."