“Carnival” is the Christian season that comes right before Lent. In order to understand Carnival, it’s important to understand what Lent is: during Lent, Christians will sometimes fast, abstain from sex, alcohol, drugs, and other certain foods, and devote themselves to prayer and good works. Lent is marked by Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Easter season that celebrates Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death by cross in Christian tradition.
So, before all that, people get the season of Carnival. Carnival is like the opposite of Lent: instead of abstaining and being holy, Carnival urges people to drink a lot, have a lot of sex, dress up, make jokes, and spend nights outside with their neighbors, getting into trouble and having fun. This translates differently in different parts of the world: for instance, England has a history that features the character “The Lord of Misrule”, where part of the Carnival celebration includes making a peasant the lord of the parade, and everyone’s roles are switched; men dress like women, peasants dressed like lords, etc. In Venice, Italy, the tradition of Carnival mask-wearing became popular as a way to disguise your identity from your neighbors, just in case you blacked out drinking or committed some other kind of sin. In Croatia’s Karnvar region, stuffed dolls made to look like men are burned as symbols of the previous years’ troubles. Wherever Carnival is celebrated, the ideas of good-spirited debauchery, reversal of roles, and wishing for a successful new season are all incorporated.
In the United States, Carnival isn’t really celebrated in its entirety. Hardly anyone celebrates Epiphany other than small, specific groups in Louisiana, and not too many people celebrate Twelfth Night either. But Mardi Gras, the culmination of the season of Carnival, is definitely celebrated in certain areas: Washington, DC; St. Louis, MI; San Francisco, CA; Galveston, TX; and Miami, Pensacola, Tampa, and Orlando in Florida, all have formal Mardi Gras celebrations. Each city has their own traditions, with some dating back farther than others: for instance, the ones that take place in the South, like Galveston, St. Louis, and New Orleans, have been going on since the 18th century during French colonization of the area. The newer celebrations in the North have caught on to the popularity of the parades and instituted them as well.
The most famous Mardi Gras celebration is in New Orleans, Louisiana. Louisiana was a French Colony, and the explorer who claimed it for France actually landed on Louisiana soil on Mardi Gras day in the late seventeenth century. He declared the bayou he landed on “Mardi Gras Bay”, which is where the first Mardi Gras parades were held by French colonizers. After Louisiana was bought by the United States, and New Orleans was declared the official capital, the celebrations moved up to the capital’s streets. The first parades included the throwing of glass beads, music, and dancing.
Modern Mardi Gras in New Orleans still has the fun music and dancing, and the “throwings” have gotten much more interesting: plastic beads, coconuts, and gold doubloons are all things you can expect to be thrown from floats into the crowds at Mardi Gras this year. If you’re going, keep your eyes peeled!