New Orleans, the host city for our 2013 convention this June, is perhaps most widely known for one thing: Mardi Gras. Some may dismiss tonight’s events in the Big Easy as simply colorful beads, loud music, and revelry lasting into the early morning hours. Those who do are sorely mistaken. Beyond a night of letting loose, Mardi Gras represents a centuries-old festival with rich traditions celebrated the world over.
Mardi Gras has roots as far back as the Roman Empire, when the weeklong festival of Lupercalia in February honored the Roman fertility god Lupercus. Celebrants indulged in rich food, drink, and revelry and hoped for healthy families and a good harvest. It’s believed that early Christians in Rome adopted this celebration in an effort to make converting to their new faith a little easier. Given that the festival fell before the penitent Lenten period, it was reinterpreted as a time to feast before the long fast.
As Christianity spread across Europe and into the New World, so did the festival. Unique celebrations of Mardi Gras are still found today in much of Europe, including some particularly distinctive ones in Germany and Great Britain. In the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world it is celebrated under a different name — Carnival — with the world’s largest annual celebration in Rio de Janeiro.
The French became particularly enamored with the holiday, lending it its popular name: Mardi Gras translates to Fat Tuesday. The first U.S. Mardi Gras celebration was held in a French colony in 1703 in modern-day Mobile, Alabama. The celebration quickly became popular among the rest of the French colonies in North America, including Louisiana.
New Orleans, perhaps more than any other place on earth, adopted Mardi Gras as its own. Here, a rich blend of new and old traditions flourished. Today’s celebrations include the popular colorful parades with elaborate floats, sponsored by an elite group of krewes. Perhaps less well-known are the glamorous masquerade balls with fabulous costumes. For other people, Mardi Gras is a quiet celebration at home, as families gather with friends over a king cake. There are perhaps as many different ways to celebrate Mardi Gras as there are people who celebrate it.
New Orleans doesn’t stop having fun after the beads have been swept away, the ball gowns have all been packed up in storage, or the last slice of cake has been eaten. It’s a year-round attitude that permeates the very soul of the city: Laissez les bons temps rouler, as the locals say. This mix of diverse cultures, rich traditions, and a deep appreciation for life’s beauties is something you really have to see in person to fully appreciate.
Mardi Gras isn’t the only chance to see New Orleans at its best. AAUW will hold a celebration of our own in the Big Easy this June: the 2013 National Convention. In the spirit of tonight’s festivities, we all come from different backgrounds but share a common passion for women’s equity. We look forward to celebrating that passion with you and charting a path forward together. Join us as we gather to honor our accomplishments, reflect on new challenges, and discuss our next steps in the path toward equity for women and girls. While you’re there, reconnect with old friends or make new ones as you soak in the city’s unique zest and joie de vivre. Register for convention today to take advantage of our early-bird rate.
This post was written by AAUW Member Leadership Programs Associate Ryan Burwinkel.