How Mardi Gras is celebrated around the world

The partygoers on the bayou in New Orleans aren’t the only ones who know how to let loose.

Mardi Gras -- French for Fat Tuesday -- refers to the practice of eating fatty foods on the day before Ash Wednesday, which signals the start of the Christian Lenten season, the 40 days before Easter that is generally marked by fasting.

A celebration prior to the fasting season of Lent is common in many cultures, and is also known as carnival or shrovetide. Here are a few examples of how different places around the world celebrate in abundance, before embracing abstinence (at least in theory).

New Orleans, La.: Masks, costumes, beads — almost anything goes as those in the city turn social conventions upside down and embrace the party animal within. Krewes hold parades and masquerade balls, the traditional colors of purple, green and gold are donned, and revellers drink in the streets to punctuate the festivities. Don’t forget the king cake: traditionally a ring of cinnamon roll-style pastry, king cakes associated with Mardi Gras in the Southeastern U.S. often contain a small plastic baby or trinket inside, symbolizing luck for those with a lucky slice.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Carnaval is the most popular Brazilian holiday. The Carnaval in Rio is considered the biggest carnival in the world. Variations in celebrations are observed throughout Brazil, but one thing is always present: the samba. Groups of students of sambadromes (samba schools) dance together in parades paired with floats, as more than 2 million locals and tourists fill the streets each day.

Germany: Call it Karneval or Fastnacht, the celebrations in Germany mark the “eve of the fast” that is Lent. Cologne has one of the largest carnival celebrations in Germany. The festival known as “the crazy days” starts the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. Each year, three people known as the Dreigestirn are granted the titles of prinz (prince), jungfrau (virgin) and bauer (farmer). Those who play the  roles pay for the privilege, and the prince leads the festival throughout the week. The concept of the trio has existed since 1883. The virgin is traditionally played by a beardless man, but during the years 1936-43, Nazi officials discouraged the traditional cross-dressing and ordered the part be played by a woman.

Italy: Italy is the birthplace of all carnival celebrations, with origins being traced back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. Known as Martedi Grasso, Fat Tuesday is the main day of the Carnevale in Italy, and the most famous place to celebrate in Italy is Venice. Venetians are renowned for their intricate mask work, and Carnevale masks are popular souvenirs for tourists throughout the year.

Barranquilla, Colombia: The second-largest carnival in the world, the Barranquilla carnival commences on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday with a Battle of the Flowers, and continues with street parties and dancing to music of many styles, but predominantly cumbia. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization has named it a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Trinidad and Tobago: The biggest carnival in the Caribbean is unique in its celebration of J’Ouvert. Each year at 4 a.m. on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, carnival begins under cover of darkness, as partiers take to the streets for the predawn party of J'Ouvert. J'Ouvert (French for 'jour ouvert' or 'day open') celebrates dark elements of the island's folklore and history. Bathed in chocolate, mud, oil and paint, bands of revellers dress as and act like devils, demons, monsters and imps.

Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico: The third largest carnival celebration in the world features parades, fireworks, music, street entertainment and food along the the Mazatlan Malecon oceanfront.

Print this article Back to Top