Did you ever wonder about the French connection to Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” in French. It’s actually a reference to a single day (the day before Ash Wednesday) and the practice of eating fatty foods before the start of Lent. People often refer to the period from the Feast of Epiphany (or Twelfth Night) on January 6 through midnight on Fat Tuesday as Mardi Gras or Carnival. It’s a build-up to the Catholic tradition of Lent when eating meat is forbidden.“Carnival” can be traced to “carne levare” (“put away the meat”), a ritual which began in Europe during the medieval period.
Mardi Gras is said to have arrived in North America on March 3, 1699, when explorers who’d been sent by the French king to defend France’s territory in Louisiane set up an encampment just south of New Orleans. Realizing they had arrived on the same date as Fat Tuesday in France, they proclaimed the spot Pointe du Mardi Gras and held a party. It turned into an annual celebration and, by the 1800s, started taking on the character we think of today: street processions, masked balls, and frenzied revelry. In 1875, the governor of Louisiana signed the Mardi Gras Act, which declared Fat Tuesday a legal holiday.
Mardi Gras is celebrated throughout France. One of the biggest extravangazas takes place in Nice. Le Carnaval de Nice dates to 1294 when the Count of Provence Charles d’Anjou celebrated Carnival in Nice. It was suspended around the French Revolution but returned in the 1870s.
Modern-day carnival in Nice has a different theme each year. Elaborate floats are created in special workshops. The extravaganza lasts 15 days. The Promenade des Anglais in Nice fills with parades, music, and dancers. The local tradition has roots, so to speak, in a Flower Parade which was first held in 1876. Flowers continue to be a big part of the celebration in Nice. Costumed models on floats throw thousands of fresh flowers to delighted crowds along the parade route.
Carnival in Paris is somewhat tamer. The festivities don’t extend over several weeks, but instead are concentrated on a single day which is devoted to a big parade and feasts. Scores of merry-makers turn out. One highlight is la promenade du boeuf gras (the procession of the fatted calf), when a cow that was bred in Limousine is paraded through the streets accompanied by dancers and singers and papier-måché figures. Le Carnaval de Paris was so popular during the medieval age that it’s said to have inspired the now famous celebrations in Rio and Venice. The tradition was curtailed for about 50 years, but the Paris Carnival was resurrected in 1997 and has been attracting larger crowds each year.
King’s Cake, or galette des rois, is eaten as part of the run-up to carnival season. It’s made with brioche dough and almond paste. Hidden inside is a fève (a dry bean) or tiny figurine. Whoever finds it is on the hook for buying the next cake. During carnival, the French traditionally eat les beignets du carnaval (think puffy doughnut, but more delicious).
Wherever you might go to celebrate Mardi Gras, expect lots of partying, masks, colorful costumes, music, and dancing. Enjoy the revelry!
- Le Carnaval de Paris is on Feb. 7, 2016. This year’s theme is the aquatic fantasy world, so expect to see lots of sequined mermaids. It kicks off at Place Gambetta (20th arr) at 1 pm and winds its way to Place de la République (arriving about 6 pm, but the partying continues well after). For more details: http://www.parisianist.com/en/attractions/annual-events/carnaval-de-paris-2016/
- Le Carnaval de Nice runs from Feb. 12-28, 2016: http://www.nicecarnaval.com/en
- Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans will take place Feb. 5-9, with the major parades on Feb. 9, 2016: http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/