The next Mardi Gras is Tuesday, February 16, 2021.
Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday) is the final Carnival feast on the day before Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent, the Catholic period of fasting and piety leading to Easter, the holiest day of the year in the Catholic calendar.
Many religious traditions are based on the annual farming cycle. After Easter we had to do a lot of spring planting work so there was less time for partying or piety. So we got all of that out of the way during Carnival and Lent.
Carnival was a time when we ate the last meat and drank the last beer of the previous year, before it all spoiled from age and the rising heat. Fat Tuesday was the last time you got to eat fatty foods. After that, there was less to eat until the fruits of summer, the next fall harvest and the fall slaughter of animals, so we have Lent.
Carnival was originally an Italian festival. As these traditions spread into the Americas they absorbed African traditions.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans
The most famous Carnival celebration in the United States is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana which is part of jazz culture.
In colonial times, French controlled North America’s great waterways including the St Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.
New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi on the Caribbean Sea, was originally a French city, so in the U.S., we know the end of Carnival by the French name for Fat Tuesday, “Mardi Gras” (literally “Tuesday Fat”).
New Orleans also received an injection of French Creole culture after the Haitian Revolution against France (1791-1804). “Creole” is French-Black culture.
The original meaning of “creole” was American-born French just as “criollo” meant American-born Spanish. Over time “creole” came to mean the mixed-race children of French settlers.
Creoles were a sophisticated, high-class society who received a European-style education. They created jazz. Unfortunately, America’s Creole community was wiped out by Jim Crow (racial injustice) after the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). It lives on in jazz, one of the great American musics.
What happens during Carnival stays in Carnival
Carnival was a reverse-celebration when social traditions were turned upside down, just as the summer and winter seasons are opposites of each other. The Spanish words for summer (verano) and winter (invierno) hint at this (as in inversion).
During Carnival, the ruling class lightened up a bit and the working class enjoyed more freedom. It makes sense because there was less work to do during winter.
Social mores also loosened. This is probably related to farming seasons in the northern hemisphere. Babies conceived during Carnival are born the next fall. This avoided births interrupting the planting, growing and harvest seasons. It also gave parents more time to spend with their new babies during the less busy wintertime.
Every country in the Americas has its own blend of Indigenous, European and African traditions. On the last day of Carnival in Barranquilla, Colombia, we bury Joselito, meaning that we let go of whatever wild things we did during Carnival.
However, you celebrate, Mardi Gras is really fun. Letting go together helps us prepare for the work ahead.