Mardi Gras: The festivities before lent

Mardi Gras, a lavish celebration full of rich, cultural background

Map of Country

A county map of Louisiana, which is connected to the Gulf of Mexico, in the southern United States.



Mardi Gras is a celebration where social order is challenged, if only for a brief moment. Role reversal in the celebration of Mardi Gras is a key element in challenging, and trying to invert social structure. When social structure is challenged, a special bond can be formed between participants of a celebration, communitas. Mardi Gras is a celebration where role reversal is important. The obvious role reversal is used for carnival laughter, but also challenges social structure. This brings a sense of communitas that enhances cooperation between otherwise tense ethnic groups.


Additional Image 1  

A picture of the creative and exciting costumes commonly seen at the celebration of Mardi Gras. A quick scene from one of the many parades that last for weeks during the celebration.


Human societies celebrate through rituals and special ceremonies, marked by separation from everyday life. When individuals celebrate they tend to express their emotions more openly. This can be seen in the very popular celebration in Louisiana , Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is a celebration in which social structure is challenged. The loosening of hierarchical statuses creates equality among participants, no matter who they are.




Context of United States

Louisiana is located in the South of the United States .  Louisiana 's southern latitude, along with its neighboring of the Gulf of Mexico , make a very hot, humid climate. The swampy bayous receive tropical storms and hurricanes during the summer and fall, coupled with rainfall of up to sixty-four inches a year. Temperatures vary from season to season, but one hundred degree Fahrenheit temperatures can be seen in spring, summer, fall, and winter.


Louisiana was founded by French settlers, and became property of the United States in 1803 under the Louisiana Purchase; this region was divided into thirteen states and almost doubled the size of the previous U.S. With its strategic placement on the mouth of the Mississippi river, Louisiana became a center for trading. Its rich lands also held a great potential for agriculture, sugar and cotton soon made landowners very rich. The start of the civil war destroyed much of the plantation system in the South.  Louisiana had to turn to sulfur and oil, which were discovered shortly after the war, and still is a major American producer of these natural resources.



Origins of Mardi Gras

The history of Mardi Gras is sometimes viewed as beginning in the Middle Ages, but actually has roots in Pre-Christian times. Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” is a day of heavy feasting and riotous actions before Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the start of a 40 day period of suffering to mimic the suffering Christ once endured, Lent. This celebration came to the United States , but only stuck in some rural Louisiana towns.





The earliest stages of Mardi Gras can be closely tied to present day celebrations through tradition. Mardi Gras began as a celebration in the Catholic church in Europe, and was brought to the United States . The tradition was widely rejected, except for parts of Louisiana , most of which had French background. We can see firm beginnings of American Mardi Gras in Lafayette , Louisiana . These black creole neighborhoods would mask themselves and have street parades. They carried whips to scare off the small children, who chanted “Mardi Gras, Chic-a-la-pie” at the participants. These fun games began innocently, but shortly grew from group parades to vague “gangs”, and fights began to arise between rival groups. With local laws tightening on these gangs, the whips and the full masking of the face was banned. These laws eliminated most of the violence that had been rising, yet the celebrations remained.


Today you can still see the beginning traditions in Mardi Gras celebration. The costumes are becoming more original, and with this, the idea of celebration before the beginning of lent is forming into just a full out binge-drinking party, with the traditions quickly fading.




This is a costume used in Mardi Gras, but I mainly want to focus on the mask. The entire face is covered, which was a big problem when Mardi Gras began. This sense being unknown to the public led to mischief and vandalism, and soon the full covering of the face was outlawed.





Prognosis for Mardi Gras

The celebration of Mardi Gras has been steadily increasing, in terms of the celebration that actually takes place in Louisiana , but the idea of a Mardi Gras party is exploding. Observers of Mardi Gras see this amazing celebration with its festivities, and mimic it. Although they may seem similar to a Mardi Gras celebration, they are just themed parties, and do not acknowledge the history of the celebration of Mardi Gras.





In conclusion, Mardi Gras combines many aspects to promote a communitas bond. The outrageous costumes serve as carnival humor to enhance this bond. Role reversal enhances this humor, but also creates an equality among participants. Masking also provides a sense of secrecy in the participant's actions which allows them to act out of the norm. These all combine to create a communitas bond that enhances the celebration of Mardi Gras and bonds the community outside of the celebration.



Internet References Cited

  • Louisiana Department of Economic Development. December 30, 1994.                           

  • Photographs used in website.  2004.                                                                  
  • Mardi Gras Catholic Roots  2004.
  • Information source for Mardi Gras  


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

    Ancelet, Barry Jean. “Playing the Other: Ritual Reversal in the South Louisiana Country Mardi Gras.”



    “Climate Atlas of the United States .” U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Nation Climatic Data Center . 2002, CDROM Version 2.0.




    Gaudet, Marcia. “Mardi Gras, Chic-a-la-pie: Reasserting Creole identity through festive play.” Journal of American Folklore 2001 vol.114 (154-174).



    Schaefer and Lamm. “Social Interaction and Social Structure.” Chapter 5. 2003/2005.



    Sexton, Rocky. “Cajun Mardi Gras: Cultural Objectification and symbolic appropriation in a French Tradition.” Ethnology Fall 1999, vol.38 no.4.




    Turner, Victor. “Celebration, A World of Art and Ritual.” Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington D.C.1982.




    Tuner, Victor. Turner, Edith. “Religious celebrations.”


    Znaniecki, F. “The Method of Sociology.” New York : Farrar and Rinehart. 1936.




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