Mardi Gras today is synonymous with New Orleans, but what many people may not realize is that the colorful festival’s origins can be traced all the way back to pre-Christian Rome.
In those days, pagan beliefs and rituals were popular and widely practiced. The earliest celebrations of Mardi Gras can be likened to the wild Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia, two occasions that permitted excessive feasting, gambling and partying.
Upon the arrival of Christianity in Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate existing pagan traditions into the new faith – a move easier than eradicating them completely. Eventually, the excess and hedonism of the Mardi Gras season became a prelude to the religious season of Lent – the 40 days of penance and fasting between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
As Christianity spread from Rome to other European countries like France, Germany, Spain and England, the Mardi Gras tradition travelled with it.
Finding a Home in New Orleans
Records show that the first American Mardi Gras was celebrated on March 2, 1703, when French explorers and brothers Iberville and Bienville landed in what is now Louisiana, just 60 miles south of New Orleans. New Orleans Mardi Gras was established in 1718.
By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans, but with elegant society balls – a far cry from the ostentatious parades of today.
It wasn’t until decades later that New Orleans and other French settlements began marking the holiday with street parties, masked balls and lavish dinners.
Today, Mardi Gras – also known as Carnival – is celebrated in many Roman Catholic countries around the world on the day before the religious season of Lent begins. In addition to New Orleans, Brazil and Venice host their own versions of the holiday, boasting festivities that draw thousands of tourists and revelers every year.
Customs and Rituals
On Mardi Gras in 1827, a group of students donned colorful costumes and danced through the streets of New Orleans, inspired by the celebrations they had observed while visiting Paris.
Ten years later, the first recorded New Orleans Mardi Gras parade took place, a tradition that continues to this day.
“Krewes,” the social clubs that organize parades and parties during the Carnival first appeared in 1857, when a secret society of New Orleans businessmen called the Mistick Krewe of Comus organized a torch-lit procession with marching bands and rolling floats. Since then, krewes have been at the heart of Mardi Gras culture in making sure that party goers are always treated to a spectacular show.
Other well-known customs include throwing beads and other trinkets, wearing masks, decorating floats and eating “King Cake.”
Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!
Let the good times roll as you’re transported to the flamboyance and fanfare of Mardi Gras on the 14th April when the Grand Ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel will be transformed into the New Orleans’ French Quarter, complete with the sights and sounds of the “Greatest Free Show on Earth.”
The hotel’s five-star kitchen will serve up a delicious feast of authentic New Orleans cuisine – a tantalizing blend of French, Creole and Cajun flavors – as you are entertained by glitzy Carnival-style performances and toe-tappingly funky jazz tunes fresh from Louisiana.
Tech enthusiasts will enjoy the Mardi Gras-themed virtual reality game, made all the more exciting by free business class tickets to the United States for the lucky winner. In addition, prizes valued at half a million Hong Kong dollars are up for grabs in AmCham’s most extravagant lucky-draw contest yet.
On your way out, stop by the themed photo booth and instantly print out the perfect souvenir from a night you won’t want to forget.