Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Let the Good Times Roll

As with Easter, the exact date of Mardi Gras changes every year. The celebration always falls on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and Ash Wednesday always occurs exactly 40 days before Easter, not counting the Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter. In the Western hemisphere Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon in the Northern Hemisphere, following the vernal or spring equinox. Mardi Gras is part of the seasonal celebration called Carnival. The Carnival season begins on January 6th, known in the Christian world as Twelfth Night, or the Feast of the Epiphany, and it ends at midnight on Mardi Gras night, just in time for Ash Wednesday and the start of the forty-day season of Lent.

The celebration of Mardi Gras came to North America from Paris, where it had been celebrated since the Middle Ages, when French explorer Iberville and his men arrived in New Orleans in 1699. Many see a relationship to the ancient tribal rituals of fertility that welcomed the arrival of spring. A possible ancestor of the celebration was the Lupercalia, a festivity held in mid-February in Rome. The early Church fathers, realizing that it was impossible to divorce their new converts from their pagan customs, decided instead to direct them into Christian channels. Thus Carnival was created as a period of merriment that would serve as a prelude to the penitential season of Lent.

In the late 1700s pre-Lenten balls and fĂȘtes 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, the Creole populace prevailed upon the American governor, and balls were again permitted. Four years later street masking was legalized. World War I canceled Carnival in 1918-1919, but Mardi Gras survived this struggle, along with the Prohibition of the Twenties and the Great Depression of the Thirties. In the Forties a new spirit of Mardi Gras was ushered in, pausing only for the United States' involvement overseas. Before World War II canceled four Carnivals, the first women's parade graced the streets of New Orleans with the Krewe of Venus' inaugural pageant in 1941. New Orleans' favorite son, Louis Armstrong, returned home to ride as King of the Zulu parade in 1949. Carnival's growth continued throughout the Seventies, and increasingly attracted tourism to the area.

In Europe –Particularly in Italy and France - celebrations similar to Mardi Gras are known as “Carnival”, a winter festival celebrated with parades, masquerade balls, entertainment, music, and parties. Children throw confetti at each other; mischief and pranks are also quite common. Despite its roots in pagan festivals and traditions, Carnival was adapted to fit into the Catholic rituals. Although carnival is actually one date, in Venice and some other places in Italy the carnival celebrations and parties may begin a couple weeks before.

The 2010 date for carnival is February 16 but celebrations in Venice and many parts of Italy will run from February 6 (or even in late January) through February 16, 2010.

Information included in this post was found at:,,

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