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Mardi Gras

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The festival of Carnival occurs throughout much of the Roman Catholic world. Many Americans, Catholic or not, have attended the festivities in New Orleans. For a period before Lent, from the day after Christmas until Shrove Tuesday, masked revelers enjoy pageants, commedia dell'arte, concerts and balls. Carnival (originally "carnevale"), comes from the Latin for "farewell to meat." This boisterous festival marks the beginning of Lent, the time before Easter when Catholics refrain from eating meat. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, simple, pre-Lenten celebrations evolved into what we know as Carnival. But the tradition of masquerading, for which Carnival has become known, is much older than that. It has its roots in a Roman fertility festival where masks were worn by citizens and slaves alike. The 1700s were the glory days of the Venetian Carnival. In those times, mask-wearing and other unofficial activities continued past Lent, well into the spring. Carnival was a time of nonstop partying, gambling and general irresponsibility for people of all social classes. Jugglers, mimes, acrobats and magicians entertained the crowds. And noblemen held sumptuous feasts and masked balls like the one where Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet first met. Today, Venice, Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans have three of the “must-see carnivals in the world. Mardi Gras came to New Orleans through its French heritage in 1699. Early explorers celebrated on the banks of the Mississippi. Throughout the years, Orleanians have added to the celebration by establishing krewes (organizations) which host parades and balls. Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday" and allows people an excess of fats and sugars before the abstinence of Lent (hence, pancakes and fried meats). The Mardi Gras season begins on January 6 (Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas) and continues until Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. The date can fall between February 3 and March 9 depending on the Lunar calendar, used to determine the date of Easter. Mardi Gras is always 47 days before Easter Sunday. Another way to look at the timing is that in the Jewish calendar, all holidays, festivals and solemn days begin at sundown. Therefore, Ash Wednesday actually does not begin until sundown, and fasting and penitence begins then as well. The official colors for Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. These colors were chosen in 1872 by the King of Carnival, Rex. He chose these colors to stand for the following: Purple, representing faith, Green, representing justice; and Gold, representing power. Interestingly, the colors of Mardi Gras influenced the choice of school colors for the Louisiana arch-rival colleges, Louisiana State University and Tulane University. When LSU was deciding on its colors, the stores in New Orleans had stocked-up on fabrics of purple, green and gold for the upcoming Mardi Gras Season. LSU, opting for purple and gold, bought a large quantity of the available cloth. Tulane purchased much of the only remaining (Tulane's colors are green and white).
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