Mardi Gras: The Big Party Before Lent

Kids in New Orleans wearing Mardi Gras costumes

Ask 10-year-old Michael Jones his favorite thing about Mardi Gras, and he’ll probably tell you it’s the beads – the ones people traditionally throw into the crowds of spectators at Mardi Gras parades.

“You get to see everyone come from different cities and towns to throw beads to the kids in Florida,” he told the News Herald, his hometown newspaper in Panama City, Florida.

It’s not just kids in Florida who enjoy collecting Mardi Gras beads.

There are Mardi Gras celebrations all along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

They have their roots in France and other countries that were once part of the Roman Empire.

And the biggest Mardi Gras celebration of all is in New Orleans, Louisiana – a city where the French once ruled.

Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” in French.

This year, it falls on February 12th.

(The dates vary from year to year, because it’s based on a calendar that’s different from the one we normally use for non-religious events.)

Mardi Gras is a time when lots of people do all sorts of crazy-looking things they wouldn’t even think of doing any other time of year.

It’s a chance for many Christians to get all the partying out of their system before Lent — the period of introspection and purification that leads up to Easter.

(“Introspection” basically means looking all the things you’ve done the past year and thinking about ways to do better.)

In fact, Mardi Gras always comes right before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent.

Even though Mardi Gras refers to a specific day, it’s actually a celebration that lasts several weeks.

The French brought the tradition to America approximately 300 years ago.

But historians say Mardi Gras’ roots go back even further — all the way back to ancient Rome, more than 2,000 years ago.

Every February, the Romans had a festival called Lupercalia.

It was a celebration in honor of Lupercus, who was their god of agriculture.

And it came right before the spring planting got underway.

We’re told Lupercalia was a lot like Mardi Gras is today — days of feasting and celebration.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, when Christians first arrived in Rome from the Middle East, they took Lupercalia and made it into a Christian holiday — in order to get people to convert to Christianity.

But instead of honoring a Roman god, they linked the holiday to Lent and Easter.

The celebration eventually spread throughout much of Europe.

In many places, it’s called Carnival.

When large numbers of European settlers began arriving in the Americas, they brought Mardi Gras and Carnival with them.

Brazil holds the biggest Carnival celebration.

But it’s held in other countries such as Haiti as well, always at the same time as Mardi Gras.

The official colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green and gold.

Purple stands for justice.

Green stands for faith.

And gold stands for power.

Mardi Gras and Carnival celebrations always include lots of parades.

The parades are put on by groups called krewes.

Each krewe usually has its own float.

They also have their own Mardi Gras kings and queens.

In many communities, there are Mardi Gras parades specifically for kids, such as the “Kids and Kritters” parade in Pensacola Beach, Florida.

This particular parade is open to people’s pets as well.

And this year, lots of people dressed their animals up in costumes for the occasion.

Stephan Duggan and his dog both wore football uniforms.

His dog even wore a helmet.

“The helmet was kind of getting annoying to me,” Stephan told Pensacola TV station WEAR.  “So I said, ‘Hey, let’s put it on him!”

The dog said nothing.

But he didn’t look too happy.

By the time Ash Wednesday rolls around, the Mardi Gras mischief is over.

And it’s time to get serious.

But until then, the folks in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities say “laissez les bon temps rouler.”

That’s pronounced “less-say lay bohn tom roo-LAY.”

And in French, it means, “Let the good times roll.”