To the British, the Tuesday before the start of Lent is Shrove Tuesday, but to a substantial part of the rest of the world, it is Mardi Gras - French for ‘Fat Tuesday’. Essentially it’s about the same thing, but whilst the British are chasing pancakes symbolising things we should give up in Lent, people elsewhere are in the throes of several days of carnival celebrations prior to the next forty days’ sobriety. Carnival is derived from the Latin - “Farewell to flesh”, though to the British the term 'Carnival' either evokes ideas of the local Rotary or Brownie troop on the back of a decorated lorry, bound for a fun-fair at the local recreation ground, during the summer months, or the annual event at Notting Hill over the August Bank Holiday. However, the origins of Carnival are based more firmly in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, where eating, drinking and uninhibited behaviour abounded. As with many such ‘pagan’ celebrations, the Christian church attempted to substitute a more seemly festival, but Mardi Gras still shows its roots.
It is generally recognised that there are three main ‘centres’ of Mardi Gras Carnival: Rio de Janeiro in Brazil; Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean and New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, where the party actually starts on January 7th, as soon as Twelfth Night is over! Despite the seeming frivolity, in each of these locations, the whole process and ritual of Mardi Gras is taken extremely seriously and a great deal of expense of both time and money is involved. In New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it was a matter of civic pride that "Mardi Gras would roll" no matter what. Because the process of preparing for the celebrations is so expensive, and many of those participating are not rich, there is a general pooling of resources and expertise into groups, based on Samba Schools in Brazil, Krewes in Louisiana and Mas Bands in the West Indies.
Meanwhile, for a look at the more elegant Mardi Gras costuming seen in Venice , use the link below
Outlandish Mardi Gras-style celebrations are not just confined to the Americas: Carnivals of various types occur all over Europe, although in Roman Catholic countries such as Spain, there may be serious elements such as the parading of icons and effigies of Saints as part of the celebrations.
The Germans have an ongoing Fasching festival which starts, (perhaps significantly), on the 11th of November, reaching a peak two months later in the run-up to Lent. Various days are allocated to various activities: On the Thursday prior to Lent, women in the various cities dress-up in costumes, kiss the men (sometimes even buy them drinks!) and snip off their ties. At the weekend, Jenken, a parade of fools and jesters occurs, and carnival parades are held on Monday, or Rosenmontag.
Food & Drinks for Mardi Gras
Again, it depends whose Mardi Gras you are celebrating.
In New Orleans, drink may involve beer (including the non-politically correct 'Coon' brand), Bourbon or Kentucky whiskey or cocktail mixes, including the Hurricane (a passion fruit and rum concoction). To eat, the French Creole food is predominant: Jambalaya - a spiced shrimp, ham, rice and onion dish and Gumbo (a stew with either seafood (Okra Gumbo) or Chicken (Filet Gumbo) as main ingredients. The Po' boy sandwich is a baguette-based meal filled with meat, gravy, lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise (other fillings are possible) and this area is also the home of Tabasco sauce!
In Brazil, beer consumption is high, a favoured brand being called Chopp, but the national spirit drink is Cachaca, distilled from fermented sugar. Cheaper brands are fiery and sugar-sweetened. As far as food is concerned, Brazilians do not have much of a 'take-away' culture: Food is only eaten where it should be, and eating on the streets is usually frowned on. That said, with an economy based on beef and sugar, the Brazilians have a great food culture. A popular method of eating is the Churrasco de rodizio. This is where waiters tour tables offering barbecued meat on skewers to patrons
In the Caribbean, the coming together for food, drink and the carnival experience is called Jamin; Red Stripe (widely available in this country) is a brand-leader beer and on the spirit side Rum - Dark, White and Golden (plus variations), is synonymous with the area. Food-wise the Jerk method of cooking meats, poultry and seafood, spiced with Jamaican pimento, onions, seasonings and a marinade over an open flame is native to Jamaica, but popular throughout the Caribbean. In practice, any form of spiced and barbecued food will usually help set the mood.
Costumes and Characters
Being carnival based, almost any colourful fancy-dress costume will do for Mardi Gras, the only limits being practicality for the venue in question, and any constraints of a theme for a float or group, within the Mardi Gras carnival theme. That said, these are a few special characters involved in Mardi Gras:
Fasching Female Clown:- Many continentals tend to make their own costumes rather than hire, so your clown can quite reasonably look 'home-made', using everyday clothes in odd combinations, men's trousers for baggy pants, etc.. Make-up and hair colour can tend to be lurid, the normally staid females either going totally over the top, or keen not to be recognised! Back-combing, spray-colouring and glittering of hair is common, but alternatively the Germans have a good carnival wig-making tradition! One prop you might find useful, though, is a giant pair of scissors.
Fasching Möhnen (Market) Woman:- Whilst not as wild as the clown, this too can be OTT, not unlike a female doing a pantomime dame dressed as a milk-maid, or serving wench. Features, both facial and anatomical, may be over-exaggerated and once again, the giant scissors have a part to play.
Jazz Musician:- New Orleans is the birthplace of Jazz (Jazzmen even have their own special type of funeral! (See Second-Liner) and the musical element is an essential part of Mardi Gras. Most people have a image of the traditional jazzman (usually involving dark glasses or snazzy waistcoats). It probably helps if you have an instrument for use as a prop (even a blow-up saxophone). This is also a chance to imitate an icon of the musical world.
Krewe Member:-The only differences between someone in normal fancy dress and a Krewe member is that a) they are likely to be carrying all manner of 'throws' for distribution during their parade, and b) they usually have a half-face mask or make-up to hide their identity.
Samba School Dancer or Participant:- Unless you are celebrating indoors, the February climate of Britain probably does not allow for the same style of skimpy samba costumes sometimes seen in Rio. Nonetheless, there is potential for colourful dress (think Carmen Miranda or Edmundo Ross) and body decoration. Pictures of the Notting Hill Carnival costumes may help provide inspiration.
Second-Liner:- Second liners are not unique to Mardi Gras, but Jazz Funerals are. During this event, the body of the deceased musician is carried in sombre procession to the cemetery, but once inside the soul is freed and the band and mourners start dancing to help the soul on its way. (See the opening sequence to the Bond film 'Live and Let Die' for visual reference). Second-liners (male or female) may wear colourful tail-suits and top-hats and carry fringed umbrellas.
Zulu Krewe Member:- The Zulu Krewe of New Orleans presents a parody of black Africans - all coconuts and grass-skirts. Perhaps not the most politically correct costume, but a possibility to use an upgraded witch-doctor outfit for the celebrations. The addition of a crudely made crown of bamboo, tropical fruits, coconut shells or whatever, plus an equally improvised sceptre will provide a Zulu King