Carnival is celebrated in Europe, the Caribbean Islands, and North and South America. In Italy, it is known as Carnevale. In Mexico, it is known as Carnaval. In other countries, it is known as Carnival. People in France and the United States call the last day of Carnival, Mardi Gras.
By the 9th century, a new religion was spreading throughout Europe. It was called Christianity and many Europeans were converting to it. Christians believed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Christians observe Lent, which is a period of time when they fast to be like Jesus, who they believe suffered and died for them. Their fasting consists of not eating certain foods such as meat and sweets. So, in the days before Lent, the Christians would bake doughnuts and pastries and hold parties. To them, this was Carnival because it was their last chance to eat anything they wanted before Lent. This is where the word Carnival officially came from. It comes from the Latin words carne and vale, meaning “goodbye to meat.”
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII made Mardi Gras a Christian Holiday. He placed Mardi Gras the day before Ash Wednesday so that all the debauchery would be finished when it was time to fast and pray.
Iberville and Bienville LeMoyne brought Mardi Gras with them to North America in the late 17th century, which is when King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France’s claim on the territory of Louisiana. On March 3, 1699 the two found the mouth of the Mississippi River. They made a camp a couple miles up the river so they would have somewhere to stay. Iberville noticed it was March 3 and remembered that back home in France, they were celebrating Mardi Gras. So, the LeMoyne brothers named their camp Point d’Mardi Gras and then started celebrating.
In time, the last day of Carnival became special to the Christians. The French named it Mardi Gras which means “Fat Tuesday.” The day after Mardi Gras is Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent and lasts for forty weekdays and ends on Easter Sunday. Mardi Gras is always 47 days before Easter.
Carnival begins on January 6 which is the Christian holiday of Epiphany. They believe that three wise men, or three kings, brought gifts to the baby Jesus on January 6, twelve days after he was born. Some people call the first night of Carnival Twelfth Night and that is because January 6 is the twelfth night after Jesus’ birth.
Mardi Gras parades officially began in 1838. Over the next 20 years, Mardi Gras began to get more out of control; now being defined by drunkenness and even violence. It was getting so crazy that by 1857, Mardi Gras was on the verge of disappearing. Then some people proposed the idea of forming a private club to put on a parade that would be based on a theme, including floats, riders in costumes, and torch carriers to light the way. Mardi Gras had become so chaotic, so they wanted this parade to go on in an orderly fashion. This is when we first got the term “Krewe” and these people named themselves "Comus" after the Greek god of revelry. So, in 1857, the Mystick Krewe of Comus paraded for the first time.
The second carnival krewe made their debut in 1870. They chose January 6 to have their parade and ball, and going along with that, they named themselves the "Twelfth Night Revelers". Even though this krewe no longer parades today, their ball, The Revelers’ Ball, marks the official start of Carnival season.
Mardi Gras grew bigger and bigger, and the conditions improved from all of the rowdiness they had got down too. More and more krewes began appearing, so every year there were new parades to watch and new balls to attend. In 1872 the King of Carnival, Rex, chose purple, green, and gold to be the official colors or Mardi Gras. He chose purple to represent justice, green to stand for faith, and gold to stand for power. Those are still the colors we associate with Mardi Gras today.
Tourists from all over refer to Mardi Gras as “the greatest free show on Earth!” Every Mardi Gras hundreds of thousands of tourists come from all over the country to celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Pope Gregory XIII