The Saturnalia and Lupercalla
These two Roman feasts have had great influence in shaping the carnival as we know it today. Lupercalla took place on the 15th of February. It was held in honor of Pan, the god of fertility. It was also held in honor of Juno, wife of Zeus. She was also associated with fertility.
Important parts of this rite were the animal sacrifices. The Lupercali (priests) would cut off the skins of a couple of goats. The priest would carry the skin and throw it at any woman passing them by. The practice had a great influence on the history of Mardi Gras.
This was important because being hit by the skin meant they would be fertile. Women often did everything they could to draw the priests’ attention. This included exposing their breasts. The practice of breast exposure has survived in modern times. As with most of the Roman festivals, the Lupercalla was marked by drinking, dancing and outlandish activities.
Even when Christianity arose, the practice was continued. However, most people started donning masks. Owing to the rowdy activities, people decided to put them on to avoid identification. From donning the masks, people began wearing more exotic costumes.
Sensing that there was no way to stop the practice the Church didn’t stop it, allowing the development and history of Mardi Gras to proceed. However they decided to fuse it with the Lenten season.
It was decided that the carnival would take place the day before Ash Wednesday. It became known as Fat Tuesday. Because Lent meant fasting and prayers for the devoted, Fat Tuesday became the last day for people to indulge in food and other worldly pleasures.
Carnival throughout the World
The carnival became popular throughout the continent. In particular it was a big hit in France. It was marked by grand balls, colorful parades and floats. In England the time became known as Pancake Day. Eventually the practice was carried by the English to the New World. Some of the most spectacular carnivals take place in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and New Orleans.
The Carnival in New Orleans
The history of Mardi Gras in New Orleans began when the French and Spaniards settled in the South. It started in New Orleans, and to this day the most stunning carnivals take place there.
One of the earliest depictions was in 1857. There were colorful floats all around. The participants symbolized the figures in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Other events featured dramatic reenactments of the Talisman by Walter Scott. During carnival time, New Orleans becomes a party place.
The Carnival Today
Today these carnivals are major events. Thousands of people participate and millions more watch it on TV. In New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, they are major tourist attractions.
Filled with parties, happiness and a frenzied atmosphere, it has come to symbolize all that is pleasurable. Regardless of the history of Mardi Gras and where it is celebrated, the theme is the same: to have nothing but a great time.