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LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL | The first American Mardi Gras took place in 1699


By Tara Yilmaz

→ Did you know the expression “laissez les bons temps rouler” is a Cajun French phrase? This term is loosely equivalent to the English phrase “let the good times roll.” It’s a fitting description for Mardi Gras celebrations. Floods of locals and tourists dance on Bourbon Street every year and throw beads from the hotel balconies in the French Quarter. It’s one huge holiday in New Orleans. Participants adorn themselves with purple, green, and gold beads and clothing while following parades down city streets. All of that sounds like a time to be had. But there is a historical reason behind this festive holiday.

→ Did you know the translation of Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday”? Mardi is the French word for Tuesday, and gras means “fat.” The seasonal celebration began on the Christian holiday Epiphany. This year, Epiphany fell on Friday, Jan. 6. The other name for it is Three Kings Day or the Twelfth Day of Christmas. According to, many countries refer to this time period between Epiphany and Fat Tuesday as Carnival. Brazil is world famous for its Carnival celebrations. Either term for the holiday will suffice. This year, this rip-roaring holiday started on Tuesday, Feb. 6, and will conclude when Ash Wednesday welcomes the 40 days of Lent. Then revelers will have to fast between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.

→ Did you know by popular belief, Mardi Gras may be steeped in pagan roots? In a more recent article on Mardi Gras by, the tradition dates back thousands of years to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, including the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. A brief historical account of Saturnalia positions the holiday in mid-December and honors the ancient agricultural god Saturn. Because of its proximity to the winter solstice, activities such as gift-giving during the day of Sigillaria, Dec. 19, feasting, and decorating homes with wreaths and candles, became associated with Christmas.

Although the exact origin of Lupercalia is unknown, it’s been dated back as far as the 6th century B.C. The pagan festival was held each year in Rome on Feb. 15. In contrast to Saturnalia, Lupercalia was violent and engulfed with animal sacrifices with a touch of random matchmaking in hopes to ward off evil spirits.

As a result of the arrival of Christianity in Rome, in 313 CE, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which paved the way for it to become the official religion of Rome. Moving forward, religious leaders incorporated the pagan holidays into the new faith. This seemed to be easier and more inclusive to combine the three than to disregard any of them. Soon, Mardi Gras became the opening celebration for Lent.

→ Did you know the first American Mardi Gras took place on March 3, 1699? Two French explorers named Pierre Le Moyne d’lberville and Sieur de Bienville arrived in Colonial Louisiana, now present-day New Orleans.

The new visitors to a country that was already in existence celebrated their arrival and named their landing spot “Point du Mardi Gras.”

Decades following, other French settlers marked the holiday with street parties, communal feasts, and masquerade balls.

→ Did you know Louisiana is the only state in which Mardi Gras is a legal holiday? But that doesn’t stop other states like Alabama, Mississippi, and even Pennsylvania from celebrating.

Mardi Gras events in Pittsburgh range from Allegheny City Brewing’s Fifth Annual Northside Cajun Cookoff on Feb. 26 to Pittsburgh’s Fat Tuesday Party hosted by the Elks Lodge located at 400 Cedar Ave. on Feb. 21. Information on these and other regional Mardi Gras events can be found at



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