Mardi Gras (also called “Carnival” in many countries) is a time of unrestrained merrymaking, in which participants passionately indulge every fleshly desire. Celebrated predominantly in Roman Catholic communities in Europe and Latin America, pre-Lenten carnivals are spreading in the U.S. Some of the more famous celebrations occur in New Orleans, Louisiana; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; Nice, France; and Cologne, Germany.
This festival is so popular that millions celebrate it. For example, three million people flock to New Orleans annually to participate in what is often billed as “the greatest free show on earth.” It adds an estimated $1 billion to the city’s economy, and its population more than doubles during the week leading up to Fat Tuesday.
While this festival is highly popular, is it merely harmless fun?
Even though Carnival is observed around the world, let’s consider more closely how Mardi Gras is celebrated in America.
This may come as a surprise, but Mardi Gras long predates Christianity. The earliest record comes from ancient times, when tribes celebrated a fertility festival that welcomed the arrival of spring, a time of renewal of life. The Romans called this pagan festival Lupercalia in honor of “Lupercus,” the Roman god of fertility. Lupercalia was a drunken orgy of merrymaking held each February in Rome, after which participants fasted for 40 days.
Interestingly, similar to modern celebrations, the Romans donned masks, dressed in costumes and indulged all of their fleshly desires as they gave themselves to the gods “Bacchus” (god of wine) and “Venus” (goddess of love). The masks and costumes were used as disguises to allow sexual liberties not normally permitted as individuals engaged in “bacchanal,” the drunken and riotous occasion in honor of Bacchus. (The word “bacchanal” is still associated with Carnival celebrations to this day.)