The history, rituals, and Catholic roots of Mardi Gras are part of the history of St. Louis. The tradition of Mardi Gras began in Rome and had traveled to the United States by the 17th century. Even though the first traditions were developed in Rome, St. Louis and its Catholic roots have impacted the Mardi Gras we know and love today.
Upon hearing the words “Mardi Gras,” most people instantaneously think of New Orleans, Louisiana. However, Mardi Gras has a complex history, with roots in pagan celebrations that date back thousands of years. These pagan celebrations were for spring and fertility, but as time went on, Mardi Gras celebrations made their way across the globe. When Mardi Gras celebrations started taking place in Rome, religious leaders decided to interweave their Christian faith into these celebrations. Mardi Gras then became an important time preceding the Lenten season in Christianity. After making its mark in Rome, these new Mardi Gras celebrations began spreading across Europe. It took some time, but by the 17th century Mardi Gras celebrations finally made their way to the United States. Once in the United States, Mardi Gras celebrations slowly started to grow and develop from one region to the next, and by 1980, made its way to St. Louis, Missouri.
The celebration of Mardi Gras has roots in Catholicism that date back to the 14th century in Italy. The Catholic roots began with the Roman celebration of Lupercalia more commonly known at St. Valentine’s Day. Lupercalia involved honoring the Roman god of fertility, feasting, drinking, and behavior that later evolved into the Carnival.
The word “carnival” is derived from the Latin word carnelevarium which means the removal of meat. The removal of meat is deeply rooted in Catholic tradition before the start of the Lenten season. The Catholic Church recognizes Fat Tuesday as the last day before the start of the Lenten season, which is a time of fasting and repentance. The purpose of Fat Tuesday is to rid one's home of all the richer and fatty foods such as meat, eggs, cream, butter, and other animal products. Because Fat Tuesday originated in the 1700s, there were no means of keeping meat fresh for long periods of time. The Catholic Church stated that all people were to celebrate with their neighbors by consuming the rest of their meat and fatty foods in commemoration of the Lenten season. As time progressed the festive atmosphere known as Mardi Gras became known worldwide. The Catholic roots continue to drive the structure of Mardi Gras, but the celebration has blended with other cultural traditions to form the ritual that is celebrated worldwide today.
After Bienville LeMoyne founded the city of New Orleans in 1718, the city adopted the tradition of Mardi Gras. The festival consists of bright colors, delicious foods, and parade activities. Mardi Gras’ traditional colors include green, gold, and purple. Since the colors were chosen in 1872, they have had specific meanings: purple symbolizes justice, green is for faith, and gold is for power. These colors started the tradition of throwing beads because it is believed that who ever catches the beads will embody the meaning represented by the color. Furthermore, contrary to common belief Mardi Gras is not a one day celebration, but rather the celebration begins on Three Kings Day in early January and climaxes on Fat Tuesday. On Fat Tuesday, there is a parade which includes throwing of beads and "zulu" (decorated) coconuts. Aside from the parade festivities, the most well known Mardi Gras food is King Cake. King Cake’s history dates back to the middle ages to commemorate the birth of baby Jesus. The King Cake is a braided danish iced with green, purple, and gold coloring. Bakers traditionally insert a baby figurine into the cake, and whoever found the baby was to buy the next cake or host the next Mardi Gras party. Overall, the Mardi Gras celebration has a rich history with meaningful rituals that have been passed down for generations.
Soulard is a well-known part of the city of St. Louis that has been home to many boisterous Mardi Gras and Bastille Day celebrations. One can even consider Soulard a mini New Orleans during Mardi Gras festivities. Being one of the oldest parts of St. Louis, Soulard has a history tracing back as early as the 1700s. In the 1790s, some of what is now known as Soulard was given by the Spanish governor of the time to Antoine Soulard, a surveyor general in Upper Louisiana, in return for all of his services. Soon enough, Soulard became a melting pot of many different European ethnicities including Germans, Irish, Croatians, and many more, all of whom were immigrants willing to work for a new home in America.
Mardi Gras in St. Louis began in February of 1980 when a man named Bob Brinkmann and his friends decided to have some fun and host a party. They couldn’t decide on a theme for it so he just shouted, “How about a Mardi Gras party?!” Everyone thought having a Mardi Gras party in St. Louis was weird but they all chipped in anyway and made it happen. Oddly enough it stuck and they kept happening every year after that. It started more as a private party but later on it grew in size and attracted many corporate sponsorships. Today, it begins in January and continues on until the end of February with many different events planned throughout the course of more than a month.
Mardi Gras has a very rich history, with roots starting in Rome and traveling all the way to St. Louis in the late 20th century. Although some people see Mardi Gras as a single day of celebration, it actually goes on for many days and has religious meanings behind it. Mardi Gras is a major celebration in St. Louis, specifically in Soulard. Each year thousands of people travel to Soulard to celebrate Mardi Gras and the many traditions of this Lenten ritual.
Content researched and written by Sydney Hitpas, Anna Quadrini, Fjolle Rexhepi, and Anna Sullivan.
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