The observance of Mardi Gras before the Lenten period (a Christian symbolic penitence from Ash Wednesday to Easter) is not new. It originated in the middle of the second century in Rome when the Fast of the 40 days of Lent was preceded by a feast of several days during which time participants delivered themselves up to voluntary madness, put on masks, clothed themselves like spectres, gave themselves up to Bacchus and Venus and considered all pleasure allowable.
The name carnival is derived from the Latin Caro, Carnis, flesh, and vale, farewell because at that time people took leave of flesh. The carnival of the modern world is nothing more or less than the Saturnalia of the Christian Romans who could not forget their pagan festivals.
From Rome, the celebration spread to other European countries and finally to America.
Carnival is still observed in many American cities but certainly not with the glamour that is attendant to the New Orleans carnival which had its birth in 1827, when a group of students, recently returned from school in Paris, donned strange costumes and danced their way through the streets. The students got the idea for their Mardi Gras revelry from the celebrations they had experienced in Paris. New Orleanians caught the enthusiasm of the youths and from 1827 to 1833. Mardi Gras each year saw more and more revelries, culminating in an annual Mardi Gras ball.
In 1833 Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville, a rich plantation owner, solicited a large amount of money to help finance an organized Mardi Gras celebration. It was not until 1837 however, that the first Mardi Gras parade was staged.
The first description of a Mardi Gras parade is of a single float in 1839 and was a great success. It is reported that the float moved through the streets while the crowd roared hilariously. It continued to grow, with additional organizations participating each year until the Carnival as we know it today was the result.
Carnival is similar to the Fasching of Germany which begins on the twelfth night after Christmas and continues until Shrove Tuesday. The expression Mardi Gras is from the French, meaning Fat Tuesday.
The official colors for Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. These colors where chosen in 1872 by the King of Carnival, Rex. He chose these colors to stand for the following: