Many Americans take the opportunity to travel for Mardi Gras. The New Orleans Mardi Gras is the most famous festival. In 2017, it falls on February 28. Mardi Gras occurs after the holiday season when late-winter doldrums really set in. The timing is spectacular. Countries all around the world gear up for their versions of Mardi Gras with some of the most indulgent festivals.
What is Mardi Gras?
Thousands of years ago, Mardi Gras was a Roman festival commemorating the coming of spring, the pleasures of the flesh and the promise of rebirth. In the 17th and 19th centuries, it passed through the French House of Bourbons and was commonly celebrated as Boeuf Gras or fattened calf. Fat Tuesday marks the last day before the start of Lent, a time of fasting and repentance for 40 days of restraint and sacrifice before Easter and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Most Mardi Gras carnivals occur in Roman Catholic influenced areas. Catholics generally give up something pleasurable, like chocolate or beer, while more fundamental Catholics will fast or give up meats except fish.
Since Lent is about cutting back, Mardi Gras is about cutting loose with as many fatty foods, meats and partying as possible in a few days. The name “Mardi Gras” is actually French for “Fat Tuesday.” Other names for this day include “Shrove Tuesday” or “Pancake Tuesday” in England and “Carnival” in other places around the world. “Shrove” is the past tense of the word “shrive,” which means “absolve.” It’s a time for revelers to reflect upon themselves and think about repentance for the coming Lenten season. Even “Carnival” is a loaded name, from the Italian words for meat – “carne” – and farewell – “vale.”
Mardi Gras is a wild time to travel to experience the many versions of the carnival.
Mardi Gras around the world
Carnival in Brazil: Mardi Gras came to Brazil in the 1830s with Portuguese immigrants. The celebration mixed with African traditions gradually evolved into a weeklong party with costumes, pageantry, street music and the traditional election of the Carnival King. The sounds of samba, a Brazilian dance of African origin, are associated with eating and merrymaking.
One of the most cherished Brazilian Carnival traditions is the samba parade: a spectacle of color, dance, and sound. Rival samba schools fiercely compete for the best show in the Sambadromo. Each samba school attempts to convey a theme with their unique samba tunes, decadently decorated floats, and costumed parade members.
It’s not a Mardi Gras celebration without tons of great street food. Brazilians enjoy espetinhos, or little bits of barbecued meat on a stick. There’s also pao quiejo, a Brazilian cheese bread, and cassava chips, (think French fries but swap out the potato for cassava, a tuberous root from a tropical tree.)
The Quebec Winter Carnival: The Quebec Winter Carnival began when French immigrants brought their Mardi Gras traditions to Canada. The Quebec Winter Carnival in Quebec City, instituted in 1894, is actually one of the world’s largest winter carnivals. Since that day, organizers have shifted the carnival to occur in the weeks prior to the actual day of Mardi Gras in order to make the celebration more universal.
A lot of greatest-hits traditions occur during the Quebec Winter Carnival. American revelers might recognize the bead-tossing tradition and the marching jazz bands. That said, the carnival has a distinctly Canadian spin. Festivities include a canoe race along the St. Lawrence River and a snowman mascot named Bonhomme, who lives in an ice palace built every year.
Some traditional Canadian Mardi Gras fare includes the drink of choice, the Caribou, a mixture of red wine, hard liquor, and maple syrup. There’s also plenty of cheese fondue and a special pastry called BeaverTails – possibly the most Canadian name ever given to a pastry.
Venice Carnevale: The Venetian tradition of Carnevale is all about mystery. The city fills up with color and light, and masked revelers come out in droves for food, drink, and mischief. Interested partiers can find any number of masked balls and galas to attend, though they tend to be on the expensive side.
At Piazza San Marco, you’ll be able to get a good eyeful of the spectacle. It’s the center of all the excitement during Carnevale. The origins of the mysterious masked celebration are largely unknown, save for its celebration of Venice’s tradition of fine mask-making. The idea is that you are freer to be yourself when your identity is a secret.
If you’re in Venice for Carnevale, get a taste of the action with a frappe, a type of light, fried pastry. You can also satisfy your sweet tooth with castagnole, little donut-like spheres served with custard or cream. If you want a swig of something warm and boozy while you watch the parades and parties, grab a cup of mulled wine.
German Karneval: This celebration in Germany comes with a few names and variations, including Fastnacht and Fasching. Ancient pagan celebrations in Germany started the tradition of wearing masks to drive out evil spirits. Today, that tradition takes the form of masked jesters ribbing politicians with the safety of anonymity.
The best of German street food comes out during the Mardi Gras celebration, including sausages and pretzels. You can also score krapfen, or a German variation on a donut, and warm up with a hot cup of gluhwein, or hot spiced wine.
Keep in mind that the actual day of Mardi Gras – Shrove Tuesday – is preceded by a pair of great German celebrations. First, there’s the Women’s Carnival, when women are encouraged to literally cut off men’s ties and give them quick pecks on the cheek. Then there’s Rose Monday, a day for big parade floats, throwing sweets and watching street bands perform.
Russian Maslenitsa: Like other Mardi Gras celebrations, Russian Maslenitsa has pre-Christianity roots. It harkens back to Slavic sun worshippers, and the traditional celebration of the end of winter and beginning of spring.
The meaning of “Maslenitsa” isn’t far off from the French “Mardi Gras.” “Maslo” is the Russian word for “butter.” The festival is sometimes better known as “Butter Week.”
Today, Maslenitsa means sleigh rides, snowball fights and prescribed traditions for every day of the week. The Sunday before Mardi Gras is just for reuniting family, friends, and neighbors over delicious meat dishes. Maslenitsa Monday is kicking things off with parades, snow slides, and sweets. Tuesday is a time for sledding, young love, mischief and the traditional Maslenitsa food: the blini.
The blini is a pancake topped with sour cream, caviar, berries or jam. The round shape and warmth of the snack are meant to represent the sun, which goes back to the sun festivals of old.
New Orleans Mardi Gras: Americans searching for Mardi Gras fun can do worse than looking in their own backyard. New Orleans throws a giant Mardi Gras party every year. Revelers come in purple, gold and green costume and adorn themselves with long beads. From there, it’s a nonstop procession of parades, parties, music, and food.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans goes back to the 1730s. The celebration transformed over the decades, from society balls to street processions. In 1872, a new tradition began: the introduction of a King of Carnival, “Rex.” A color scheme was adopted, too: purple for justice, gold for power and green for faith.
Mardi Gras foods in New Orleans are festive and decadent. There’s the traditional King Cake: a ring-shaped coffee cake decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors. You can also fill up on jambalaya, a spicy stew of sausage, rice, and seafood.
When you think Brazilian Carnival, you think samba, and when you think New Orleans Mardi Gras, you think jazz. Attendees will enjoy their fill of unique jazz stylings wherever they go on city streets.
Mardi Gras is about letting go of self-control for a little while, but it’s important to keep your head in the game so you’ll be safe enough to party another day. Here are a few tips to make your Mardi Gras successful, fun and safe:
- Download the Travel Safety Checklist at departsmart.org. It has more than fifty checkpoints to help you identify and mitigate risks so you can get help and home safely. Most people don’t know, or do, the basics – such as protecting themselves with travel vaccinations and insurance, registering their trip with the State Department or even knowing the local emergency number(s). This checklist helps you prepare for the best and the worst possible scenarios.
2. Book early: Hotels and plane seats fill up fast during Mardi Gras. Make sure you get your tickets and reservations well in advance so you’re comfortably set for the big day.
3. Don’t drink dangerously: True, Mardi Gras is a party, and some people like to drink heavily when they party. Drinking too much has dire consequences including but not limited to a null and void insurance policy. Too much alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning, dehydration and poor decision making. Joining a Mardi Gras party means you may be surrounded by people who have lost their heads. It’s okay to have an alcoholic drink or two, but don’t overdo.
4. Hydrate: Make sure you have plenty of good, clean water. Staying up late, eating salty food, drinking and sweating all lead to dehydration. Drink water regularly, even if you’re not necessarily thirsty.
5. Be careful about food: If you have food allergies, trying new street foods and Mardi Gras delicacies can be risky. Make sure you communicate your food needs to the people around you and have someone ready to help you if there’s an accident and you have a reaction. Above all, you should know the number to use to call an ambulance in your party destination.
6. Mind the bugs: If you’re traveling to a tropical location like Brazil for Mardi Gras, be prepared to ward off insects that could carry infectious diseases like the Zika virus. Cover your skin and use insect repellent when you’re out partying at night.
7. Protect your wallet: Large gatherings and parties are prime hunting grounds for pickpockets. Make sure your important items – like your wallet and passport – are secure. Just take what you need, leaving non-essential credit cards at home.
8. Stay warm: If you’re enjoying Mardi Gras in a cold place, dress warmly in layers, and get out of the elements when you need to. Make sure not to lose feeling in your extremities – it could be a sign of frostbite. If you start to feel numb, dizzy, achey or confused, you could be suffering from hypothermia, and you’ll need to get inside immediately.
9. Be aware of your surroundings: Large gatherings and tourist destinations are common targets for demonstrations, protests, and even terrorist activity. Make sure you keep up with local news updates, stay in touch with your local United States Embassy and keep an eye out for trouble.
10. Plan for difficulties: When Mardi Gras is on, plenty of streets and businesses will be closed. Make sure you have what you need well in advance of the event, and plan on getting around on foot or by public transportation.
11. Be insured: As always, having travel medical insurance is essential to going abroad. In the event of a medical or national emergency, you might need urgent care or evacuation. Having the right kind of insurance can save you tens of thousands of dollars and more.
12. Be polite: Mardi Gras makes for a large raucous gathering, but it’s important to behave well and treat others with respect. Making merry (and drinking) can lead to short tempers and rash decisions. Keep yourself and others safe by keeping your cool.
Go prepared, and you’ll be ready to have the best time possible in any of your favorite Mardi Gras destinations. For more travel and safety tips, visit Depart Smart.org.