Mardi Gras, also known as “Fat Tuesday” or “Shrove Tuesday”, dates back thousands of years to pagan celebrations of Spring and Fertility, such as the festival of Lupercalia. However, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire these festivals began to fade and change. It was considered easier to incorporate the festivals into Christian celebrations than to completely abolish them. It became a celebration, a day of debauchery before the fasting of Lent.
Many of the traditions started in these ancient times, specifically the wearing of masks. Since Mardi Gras is a day when social expectations are suspended it became necessary for people to completely conceal their identities, sometimes just using masks but many also wear costumes. The masks allow people to do things that they would not normally do, in modern times there are certain precautions taken to prevent crime and violence. For example, stores in New Orleans require that people remove their masks before entering to help prevent robberies. It has also been a long standing tradition to remove one’s mask at the stroke of midnight, marking the beginning of Ash Wednesday. It is considered distasteful to continue to wear a mask after the official end of Mardi Gras.
Another long standing tradition is to eat King Cake on Mardi Gras. The cakes, once simple, have become far more elaborate but one constant is the baby. The baby is a small figurine usually made of plastic, but once of gold or porcelain, and is inserted into the cake. The cake is then decorated in the Mardi Gras colors of purple (justice), green (faith), and gold (power) and eaten. The person who gets the piece with the baby is the host of the next year’s celebration.
It is important to note that although this was based loosely around a Christian holiday that now people from many backgrounds participate in the festivities. It has become another reason for everyone to have a good time.