It was “Party, Party, Party” in one classroom at Big Walnut High School last week. French teacher Denise Duncan’s French language students held their annual Mardi Gras celebration, complete with food, Mardi Gras T-shirts and colorful masks.
Most think of Mardi Gras as a New Orleans tradition. The celebration, however, has roots going back to the Middle Ages in Paris.
In 1699, French explorer Iberville and his men explored the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. On a spot 60 miles south of the present location of New Orleans, they set up camp on the river’s West Bank. Knowing that the day, March 3, was being celebrated as a major holiday in France, they christened the site Point du Mardi Gras.
In the late 1700s pre-Lenten balls were held in New Orleans. Under French rule masked balls flourished, but were later banned by the Spanish governors. The prohibition continued when New Orleans became an American city in 1803, but by 1823, under the American governor, balls were again permitted. Four years later street masking was legalized.
In the early 19th Century, the public celebration of Mardi Gras consisted mainly of maskers on foot, in carriages and on horseback. In 1837, a costumed group of revelers walked in the first documented parade, but the violent behavior of maskers during the next two decades caused the press to call for an end to Mardi Gras.
Six New Orleanians who were former members of the Cowbellians, (a group that had presented New Year’s Eve parades in Mobile since 1831), saved the New Orleans Mardi Gras by forming the Comus organization in 1857. The men beautified the celebration and proved that it could be enjoyed in a safe and festive manner.
The official Mardi Gras colors are purple, green and gold. They were chosen in 1872 by the King of Carnival, Rex. Purple represents justice, green stands for faith and gold is for power.
One Mardi Gras tradition holds that whoever finds a small baby doll baked into a cake is royalty for the day.
But Mardi Gras roots even predate the French, with a relationship to the ancient tribal rituals of fertility that welcomed the arrival of Spring. The early Church fathers, realizing it was impossible to divorce new converts from their pagan customs, decided instead to direct them into Christian channels, creating Carnival as a period of merriment that would serve as a prelude to the penitential season of Lent.
Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday and is celebrated on that day of the week. The date can fall between February 3 and March 9 depending on the lunar calendar used by the Catholic Church to determine the date of Easter. Mardi Gras is always 47 days before Easter Sunday.
Duncan’s students celebrated Mardi Gras on Tuesday, March 4.