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2/15/2012 1:56:00 PM
'Fat Tuesday' has Catholic roots
Catholic News Service photo
Members of the Krewe of Rex parade down St. Charles Avenue during Mardi  Gras in New Orleans Feb. 20. Mardi Gras, or
Catholic News Service photo
Members of the Krewe of Rex parade down St. Charles Avenue during Mardi Gras in New Orleans Feb. 20. Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday," traditionally provides an opportunity for festivity and merrymaking the day before Ash Wednesday and the penitential seaso n of Lent. (CNS photo/Sean Gardner, Reuters) (Feb. 21, 2007)

Beads, drinking to excess and nudity are often the images that come to mind when most people think of Mardi Gras.

Often overlooked, however, are the Catholic roots of the celebration, which marks the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

Mardi Gras stems from both pagan and Catholic traditions and can be found in numerous other predominantly Catholic countries like France and Brazil.

Mardi Gras arose out of early Christendom's blending of its traditions with pagan rituals not unlike the Christmas tree and the Easter bunny, among other cultural icons.

Mardi Gras, most historians feel, began as an ancient Roman celebration known as Lupercalia, which took place every February, honoring the Roman god of fertility.

As Christianity spread, it adopted pagan traditions and reconstructed them to fit Christian theology. In the case of Lupercalia, the festival bumped up against Lent, 40 days of fasting and sacrifice before Easter Sunday, quite nicely. The festival was seen as a "last hurrah" before Lent, allowing it to remain in place without disrupting Catholic traditions.

As Catholicism spread throughout Europe, the tradition of Mardi Gras rose in popularity in France. The name "Mardi Gras" means "Fat Tuesday" in French: the last day before Lent, when all perishable foods such as milk and eggs need to be eaten.

The roots of Mardi Gras on U.S. soil, can be traced to the French-Canadian explorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, who landed on a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans in 1699 and called it "Pointe due Mardi Gras." He also established "Fort Louis de la Louisiane" (now Mobile, Ala.) in 1702. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated the very first Mardi Gras.

Jean-Baptise Le Moyne established New Orleans in 1718. By 1730, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans, but not in the parade form as its known for today.

The earliest reference to Mardi Gras "Carnival" appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body.
By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback to celebrate Mardi Gras. Newspapers also began to announce Mardi Gras events in advance.

In 1871, Mardi Gras's second "Krewe" is formed, the Twelfth Night Revelers, with the first account of Mardi Gras "throws."

In 1873, the first floats were constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France. In 1875, Governor Warmoth of Louisiana signs the "Mardi Gras Act" making it a legal holiday in Louisiana.

Most Mardi Gras Krewes today developed from private social clubs.

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