According to historians, the celebration of Mardi Gras has its roots in the pagan Roman celebration of Lupercalia. Mardi Gras is strongly associated with wild bacchanalia and debauchery.
The Bacchanalia were Roman festivals of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, freedom, intoxication and ecstasy. They were based on the Greek Dionysia and the Dionysian mysteries: Hedonism.
This was a February holiday and it honored the Roman god of fertility. It involved feasting, drinking, and carnal behavior.
However, with the rise of the Church in ancient Rome, Christian teaching and morals took root, rather than try to eliminate the existing holiday, the Catholic Church blended over it with one of their own religious holidays, this was a common practice in the ancient world and it helped people to transition away from paganism.
Mardi Gras as defined by the Catholic Church marks the last day of ordinary time before the start of Lent, a time of fasting and repentance.
As Catholic Christianity spread throughout Europe during the first millennium, different cultures celebrated the last day before Lent in their own ways, adapting the practices to suit their cultures.
n France, the holiday became particularly popular as people feasted on foods that would be given up during the forty days of Lent. Meats, eggs, and milk were finished off in one day, giving the holiday its French title of ‘Mardi Gras’ which means Fat Tuesday.
As Europeans crossed the Atlantic to colonize the Americas, they brought their religious practices with them. From the onset, holidays such as Mardi Gras were celebrated in the colonies with as much enthusiasm as they were celebrated in Europe.
However, by 1823, this ban was lifted and parades returned by 1837. At this point, the celebration began to lose its identity as an exclusively Catholic tradition and in Louisiana, Mardi Gras in an official state holiday.
In Western churches it begins on Ash Wednesday, six and a half weeks before Easter, and provides for a 40-day fast (Sundays are excluded), in imitation of Jesus Christ’s fasting in the wilderness before he began his public ministry.
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