By Jay Sylvestre, Special Collections Librarian
Floats, parades, dancing, masks and elaborate costumes, beads, alcohol, and Dixieland jazz: these sights and sounds are all synonymous with Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday.” Celebrated just recently on February 28 of this year, Fat Tuesday is traditionally known for its colorful blend of religious and pagan festivals.
Mardi Gras has been observed for thousands of years in various forms throughout Europe. Recognition in North America began in 1699 with the Le Moyne brothers, Pierre and Jean-Baptiste, while on an expedition to reinforce French claims to the Louisiane territory. The first organized Mardi Gras was held in Mobile, Alabama in 1703, but it took until the 1830s for the city of New Orleans to officially endorse the festival. In the early 1740s, then Governor of Louisiana Marquis de Vaudreuilthen introduced the elegant society balls that became the model for contemporary celebrations. By the late 1830s, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festival included the flambeaux, a gaslight torch bearer who lead all of the parade krewes. Since its earliest days, Mardi Gras has evolved and grown into the grand cultural event that we’ve come to expect each year.
When used as a backdrop for movies and television, Mardi Gras is often interpreted and portrayed in socially relevant ways. The “All on a Mardi Gras Day” episode of the HBO show Treme (2010) captures the intense and conflicting emotions during the first celebration following Hurricane Katrina. Movies like The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Interview with the Vampire (1994) use the festival and city of New Orleans as a lush, supernatural setting. In the counterculture road film Easy Rider (1969), Mardi Gras is the target destination for the two outlaw protagonists. Even famous “Who’s On First” comedians Abbott and Costello dropped in on Mardi Gras for their 1953 film Abbott and Costello Go to Mars. However, instead of landing on the red planet, the duo accidentally end up at the lively street party in New Orleans.
Carnival, which is sometimes confused with Mardi Gras, is actually the name for the season that runs between Epiphany (Three Kings Day) and Lent in the Christian calendar. The Mardi Gras festival marks the end of the Carnival season. Not to be outdone by New Orleans, many Caribbean and South American nations have their own Carnival celebrations. Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico, and Cuba have notable Carnivals. The most famous Carnival festival takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Rio celebration attracts millions of people every year and accounts for approximately 70 percent of the country’s tourist visits. Even the birds of the 2011 computer-animated movie Rio end up at Carnival in Brazil.
Although Carnival season just passed, you can revisit the revelry of Mardi Gras anytime by grabbing yourself a slice of king cake and digging into these book, DVD, and music selections.