Most of us know what Mardi Gras has become, but some including myself, don't know always understand what Mardi Gras is actually about. Sure, we know it's the last day before Lent, and that means party time in New Orleans, but Mardi Gras really is a lot more than the rowdy, happy and crazy celebration that vendors, club owners, and others have hijacked and turned  from the quite day of feasting at home, to the parade going, beer guzzling, breast flashing party you sometimes see and hear about.

Not that any of the aforementioned activities are necessarily bad, I just feel that if we are going to celebrate something that it is important to know what we are celebrating.

HISTORY

The words, "Mardi Gras" in French are translated, "Mardi", French for "Tuesday" and "Gras", in French, means "Fat". In translating French to English, the last word spoken should be the first word translated. Therefore following this loose rule, the translation comes to mean, "Fat Tuesday".

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church prescribed what was on the daily menu. Each week during the Lenten season, there was at least one day, and more often three or even four days (depending on where and when in medieval Europe, you were) during which no meat was to be eaten. For centuries, it was customary to fast by abstaining from meat with the lone exception of fish, during Lent

In those days, long ago, people, of course, had no refrigeration, to hold perishable foods for long periods of time. Lenten season, requiring the observer to refrain from meat, presented some interesting problems for keeping and storing foods. Since the Lenten season is about 40 days long, in duration, meat on hand, had to either, be eaten, before the start of the observance or discarded.

Since Lent always starts on the seventh Wednesday before Easter, the religious following of Jesus, would choose the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday to feast, before beginning the season of "fasting". This way they could take care of two problems; the first, the hunger that goes along with fasting. The second, how to get rid of all that food before it spoiled, because they basically had a meatless and sometimes a very slim diet, for the next month. The French began to refer too this day as, "Fat Tuesday" or, as spoken in French, "Mardi Gras".

Mardi Gras in the United States

Many historians believe that the first American Mardi Gras took place on March 3, 1699, when the French explorers Iberville and Bienville landed in what is now Louisiana, just south of the holiday's future epicenter: New Orleans. They held a small celebration and dubbed the spot Point du Mardi Gras. In the decades that followed, New Orleans and other French settlements began marking the holiday with street parties, masked balls and lavish dinners. When the Spanish took control of New Orleans, however, they abolished these rowdy rituals, and the bans remained in force until Louisiana became a U.S. state in 1812.

On Mardi Gras in 1827, a group of students donned colorful costumes and danced through the streets of New Orleans, emulating the revelry they'd observed while visiting Paris. Ten years later, the first recorded New Orleans Mardi Gras parade took place, a tradition that continues to this day. In 1857, a secret society of New Orleans businessmen called the Mistick Krewe of Comus organized a torch-lit Mardi Gras procession with marching bands and rolling floats, setting the tone for future public celebrations in the city. Since then, krewes have remained a fixture of the Carnival scene throughout Louisiana. Other lasting customs include throwing beads and other trinkets, wearing masks, decorating floats and eating King Cake.

Louisiana is the only state in which Mardi Gras is a legal holiday. However, elaborate carnival festivities draw crowds in other parts of the United States during the Mardi Gras season as well, including Alabama and Mississippi. Each region has its own events and traditions.

Mardi Gras Around the World

Across the globe, pre-Lenten festivals continue to take place in many countries with significant Roman Catholic populations. Brazil's weeklong Carnival festivities feature a vibrant amalgam of European, African and native traditions. In Canada, Quebec City hosts the giant Quebec Winter Carnival. In Italy, tourists flock to Venice's Carnevale, which dates back to the 13th century and is famous for its masquerade balls. Known as Karneval, Fastnacht or Fasching, the German celebration includes parades, costume balls and a tradition that empowers women to cut off men's ties. For Denmark's Fastevlan, children dress up and gather candy in a similar manner to Halloween–although the parallel ends when they ritually flog their parents on Easter Sunday morning.