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The truth about Mardi Gras

by Cris Saiki, staff writer

The crowd rippled down the length of Lewers street, joining tourists, students, and general partygoers into a massive body of multi-colored beads, feathers, and revelry.

When asked the reason for celebration, one young man replied with a slight slur, “isn’t it the liberation of New Orleans from French oppression or something?”

It is astonishing that anyone would partake in such widespread debauchery without knowing its roots or reasons.

Mardi Gras which actually translates as Fat Tuesday, is only one aspect of the pre-Lent phenomenon generally known as carnival, carnevale or carnaval. One of the best representations of this festival is portrayed in the work of the 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In his painting The Fight between Carnival and Lent, Bruegel captures the opposition between the excess of the three-day sin binge of carnival and the austerity of the 40-day period of fasting and piety known to Catholics as Lent.

Bruegel presents carnival as a pagan festivity, a view supported by many Catholic scholars who note that the Anglo-Saxons of early Europe observed a period of fasting and abstinence in preparation for the spring equinox. The word Lent, in fact, comes from the word lenten which, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “originally meant no more than the spring season.”

When the Catholic faith came to dominate the continent, the church appropriated the celebrations as a way to “conciliate the Pagans to nominal Christianity,” according to Alexander Hislop, author of Two Babylons.

A little manipulation of the calendar allowed Catholicism to take the well-known celebration of the early European people and establish it as part of a religious commemoration of the 40 days that led to the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The most interesting part of this meshing of beliefs lies in the three days that preceed Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Catholic Lent. Known generally as Mardi Gras due to the increasing popularity of the New Orleans celebration of that name.

Carnival, etc., according to, all stem from the Latin “carnem levare” and the Italian “carne valem,” which mean “farewell to the flesh” and which denote a brief period of heavy feasting, drinking, love-making, and general merriment before the fasting, abstinence, and somber mood of Lent.

These feasts exist nearly everywhere Catholicism exerts its heavy influence, most notably in New Orleans, Louisiana; Nice, France; Cologne, Germany; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


Mardi Gras fun facts

· Mardi Gras literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French, a name based on the tradition of feasting on a fattened calf on the last day of celebration before the beginning of the Lenten fast (

· The beads for chest baring seen in Waikiki and many other places is generally not considered a tradition of the New Orleans celebration, though it is very common on Bourbon Street, a place known for its strip parlors (

· The colors of Carnival and Mardi Gras—purple, green, and gold—symbolize justice, faith, and power, respectively (





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