{mahr'-dee grah}

Purchase Books and Mardi Gras Guides
From Our Book Store

Mardi Gras (French: Fat Tuesday), or Shrove Tuesday, is the last day of the period of carnival (see CARNIVALS AND FAIRS) before Ash Wednesday, which marks the arrival of the fasting days of Lent. The name has come to represent the entire carnival period. Notable Mardi Gras celebrations take place in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, and Nice.


A carnival is a celebration combining parades, pageantry, folk drama, and feasting that is usually held in Catholic countries during the weeks before Lent. Carnival, probably from the Latin carnelevarium ("to remove meat"), typically begins early in the new year, often on the Epiphany, January 6, and ends in Feburary with MARDI GRAS on Shrove Tuesday.

SEE: The Mardi Gras Guide

Probably originating in pagan spring fertility rites, the first recorded carnival was the Egyptian feast of Osiris, an event marking the receding of the Nile's flood water. Carnivals reached a peak of riotous dissipation with the Roman BACCHANALIA and Saturnalia. During the Middle Ages the Church attempted to control the celebrations. Popes sometimes served as patrons, the worst excesses were gradually eliminated, and carnival was assimilated as a last festival before the asceticism of Lent. The carnival tradition still flourishes in Belgium, Italy, France, and West Germany. In the Western Hemisphere, the principal carnivals are those in Rio de Janeiro (begun c.1840) and the Mardi Gras in New Orleans (begun in 1857).

Pre-Christian, medieval, and modern carnivals share important thematic features. They celebrate the death of winter and the rebirth of nature, ultimately recommitting the individual to the spiritual and social codes of the culture. Ancient fertility rites, with their sacrifices to the gods, exemplify this commitment, as do the Christian Shrovetide plays. On the other hand, carnivals allow parody of, and offer temporary release from, social and religious constraints. For example, slaves were the equals of their masters during the Roman Saturnalia; the medieval feast of fools included a blasphemous mass; and during carnival masquerades sexual and social taboos are sometimes temporarily suspended.

In North America the term carnival often means a traveling show that includes rides, games of skill, and sideshows. They appear as part of state and county fairs or independently at resorts or in the parking lots of shopping malls.

Fairs are exhibition markets held at regular intervals, which often include entertainment. They serve important social, political, and economic functions. Fairs in ancient Rome included the reading of public announcements. Those at Champagne in France, Aix-la-Chapelle in West Germany, and Stourbridge in England helped to break down medieval insularity by stimulating the exchange of ideas and skills as well as international commerce. By the 15th century, as shipping developed and feudalism declined, fairs had become less important to trade, although they continued as centers for entertainment.

There are, nonetheless, some modern fairs that function as important trade exhibitions and markets, a notable example being the annual international book fair held in Frankfurt, West Germany. Other trade shows held for specialized markets--like food dealers--are sometimes called fairs.

The great fairs of modern times are the international expositions and WORLD'S FAIRS; famous ones include those held in England (1851), France (1855, 1878, and 1889), Belgium (1930, 1935, and 1958), the United States (1876, 1893, 1933, 1939, 1962, and 1964), Canada (1967 and 1986), and Japan (1970).

Fairs and carnivals in North America have been combined. The 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, the United States' first exposition, attracted entertainers who formed a kind of midway outside its gates. Coney Island, the first amusement park in the United States, began to feature educational rides, such as the trip to the moon.

More than 2,000 state and county fairs, which initially promoted agricultural education and trade, are now well known for their brightly lit carnival midways. Most recently, theme parks such as DISNEYLAND and WALT DISNEY WORLD (with Epcot Center), have combined carnival rides and thrills with the educational entertainment of fairs, portraying both the serious and playful sides of American culture.


Bibliography: Benedict, Burton, The Anthropology of World's Fairs (1983); Marti, Donald B., Historical Directory of American Agricultural Fairs (1986); Norris, John and Joann, Amusement Parks: An American Guidebook (1986); Orloff, Alexander, Carnival: Myth and Cult (1981); Pirenne, Henri, Economic and Social Life of Medieval Europe (1933; repr. 1956); Primack, Phil, The New England Country Fair (1982); Rydell, Robert W., All the World's a Fair (1987); Walford, Cornelius, Fairs, Past and Present (1883, repr. 1968); Weeden, Geoff, and Ward, Richard, Fairground Art (1982)