La Petite France is proud to host the first ever Downtown West Hartford Mardi Gras Celebration which will take place on March 8th from 11 am – 3 pm.
When most people think of Mardi Gras, they tend to think of New Orleans but Mardi Gras actually originated in France! To find out more about the history of French Mardi Gras, read this excellent article from James Withers, eHow contributor:
Mardi Gras has proved to be one of the most popular of France’s exports. Originating in France during the Middle Ages, Mardi Gras continues to be celebrated in France as well as in locations around the world, most famously in New Orleans. The celebration boasts Catholic roots, occurring as a pre-Lenten festival to prepare Catholics for Ash Wednesday. Often, Mardi Gras celebrations are used as an excuse for raucous behavior, and they have garnered the disapproval of church leaders in past centuries. However, they are generally recognized as a way for commoners to unite and enjoy life.
The King Cake
The tradition of baking a King Cake (or “La galette des Rois”) for Mardi Gras is one that developed in France during the 12th century. Each year, at the close of Christmas, King Cakes are baked in the days preceding Mardi Gras. Traditionally, they are baked in honor of the wise men who arrived bearing gifts to celebrate Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. However, in contemporary practice, the King Cake is usually used as an accoutrement for parties, and may be used for diverse purposes (including to honor the “Lord of Misrule”). Little figurines (or “feves”) are baked inside of the cakes, and anyone who discovers a toy inside of his piece is deemed “king for a day.” He is allowed to wear a paper crown to celebrate his status as king.
Fat Tuesday is usually the wildest day of French Mardi Gras celebrations. It is positioned at the end of Mardi Gras, just before Ash Wednesday (or, “the Day of Repentance”). Frequently, a fatted bull (or “boeuf gras”) is sacrificed to celebrate Fat Tuesday. This custom of sacrifice originated in France in 1512. For centuries, Fat Tuesday has been a controversial celebration. During the 15th century, church fathers attempted to suppress these festivities, on the basis of their close similarity with pagan rituals. However, the popularity of Fat Tuesday has endured, and has survived to this day.
Carnival activity common to French Mardi Gras celebrations is generally quieter in nature than the activity of a New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration. For example, the Limoux fête is noted for its characteristic dances. Such French carnival celebrations are generally communal in nature, dating back to celebrations involving the millers in the 14th century. After being offered a day of remission from paying their taxes by the monks of Prouille, they would celebrate by tossing flour and sweets to observers. Carnival celebrations are often organized in nature, involving music, dancing and participants disguised with masks and wearing garish colors.
The burning of the effigy of Monsieur Carnaval is a ritual that is celebrated in various parts of Europe, including France. In modern times, this ritual is discussed more as a school tale than it is actually ever practiced. However, carnival participants still do burn the effigy of Monsier Carnaval. A similar ritual is also practiced in Basque country, where an effigy for the excesses of the carnival, Zanpantzar, is burned to culminate the first day of its Mardi Gras carnival.
Exportation to New Orleans
Commonly believed to have been exported to the French colony of Louisiana in 1743 by the Marquis de Vaudreuil, Mardi Gras more likely came to be claimed as a local celebration later during the Revolutionary War. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras thrived, being practiced annually. There, it has evolved in many ways, to become very distinct from its French counterpart.