Around the lenten season every year, there are two events that almost always occur. They are Mardi Gras and Carnival. Both carnival celebrations are a known time to celebrate life and be free. One takes place in the United States and the other in the beautiful twin island of Trinidad and Tobago. The distance between the two is 2,267 miles but both incurred a shared French migration to the New World that brought a tradition that would be celebrated for years to come.
The earliest known emergence of Carnival can be traced to the Navigium Isidis festival in Roman Egypt. It was celebrated every year on March 5th. The Navigium Isidis celebrated the goddess Isis’ influence over the sea and served as a prayer for the safety of seafarers and, eventually, of the Roman people and their leaders. It consisted of an elaborate procession, including Isiac priests and devotees with a wide variety of costumes and sacred emblems, carrying a model ship from the local Isis temple to the sea or a nearby river. Within the Roman Empire, it was celebrated in Italy up until the year 416. In Egypt, it was suppressed by Christian Roman authorities in the 6th century. Many elements of this festival would then be used by the Christian Corpus Christi festival in the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain-both a part of the Roman Empire at one time) which celebrated the eucharist of Jesus Christ the Thursday before Good Friday, also known as Maundy Thursday in the 13th century.
While Roman territories celebrated Christian church-sanctioned festivals like Corpus Christi, the germanic tribes of Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and France were celebrating Swabian-Alemannic Fastnaught. Fastnaught roughly translates “to fast”. This festival involved elaborate rites involving masked figures in a parade that took place on Thursday before Good Friday (like Corpus Christi) which was referred to as Schmotziger Donnerstag, which translates as “Greasy Thursday”. It was “greasy” because this was the day remaining winter stores of lard and butter would be consumed before the fasting of lent began. Elsewhere the day is called “Women’s Carnival” (Weiberfastnacht), being the day when tradition says that women take control and would celebrate the fertility of women (like the Isis festival as Isis was the goddess of fertility). The Fastnaught would become one of the earliest forms of Carnival in Europe.
The tradition of Carnival festivities would then spread to Venice, Italy, and incorporate parades and masquerade balls. It would then make its way to France where the masquerade ball would become an important feature of the carnival festivities in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. These masquerade balls involved increasingly elaborate allegorical Royal Entries, pageants, and triumphal processions celebrating marriages and other dynastic events of late medieval court life. One of the festivities of Carnival in medieval France before the time of lent was called fête de la quémande (“feast of begging”). During the fête, which was a time when begging from house to house was socially acceptable behavior, disguised revelers would go through the countryside visiting households and performing for offerings, also referred to as a courir (run). Other traditions associated with the courir are derived from the folk traditions of Pre-Christian Celtic Europe and are associated with fertility and renewal.
On 3 March 1699, an expedition, sanctioned by King Louis XIV of France, brought French Catholic settlers to the New World and landed in what would be Lousiana and called the day, Mardi Gras. These French settlers were from the French region of Acadia and would become to be known as French Creoles or Cajuns (for those that went to Canada first and then Louisiana). For many years until 1833 when a rich french planter financed the celebration, Mardi Gras was prohibited by law but celebrated almost every year as enforcement was lax. Mardi Gras became an official Louisiana holiday in 1875 and for years Mardi Gras has continued to be celebrated except for war years. The festival started as predominantly white but as the times have changed since the 1700s, other races have been welcomed to participate in festivities.
At the time that French Catholics started to settle in Louisiana, similar French settlers would also settle in Trinidad and Tobago as a result of the French Revolution, leaving their French-owned colonies for a British owned colony. They brought with them their African slaves and Mardi Gras traditions. Mardi Gras participation was generally reserved for the White elite as it was in Louisiana, with other classes and races only being allowed to participate if they were performing. In Trinidad, the white upper-class society would dress up as black men and women to display carnivalesque practices and the racist notions that black men were childish and women were hyper-sexual. The African slaves began their parallel celebration called Canboulay, named after the french words cannes brulées, meaning burnt cane. After the emancipation of slaves in the British Americas on 1 August 1834, African slaves reenacted Carnival by taking to the streets in celebration of their newly found freedom. This festivity associated Africans with carnivalesque practices and they were racially stigmatized as savage, vulgar, and dangerous by the white elite, eventually leading to a white withdrawal of participation as well as hostile journalistic representations of Carnival. This post-emancipation period allowed Carnival to become an annual ceremony that demonstrated the African population’s resistance against aristocratic European social and political dominance and thus European elite attempted to abolish and police Carnival much more. Carnival introduced a new genre of music called Calypso. Calypso was initially used to mock slave masters and to communicate. Many early calypsos were sung in French Creole by an individual called a griot, later being what would be called a Calypsonian. In addition to Calypso, Carnival would spark the creation of the only musical instrument developed in the 20th century, the steelpan. As generations came and went, Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago came to be accepted by all and to this day represents the different cultures that migrated to the twin-island and the coming together of all people.
Both Mardi Gras and Carnival take place at the same time every year. Both have celebrations (fêtes) at least five days up to the most important day of the carnival festivities, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras has “Fat Tuesday” and Carnival has “Mas” (short for masquerade). Mardi Gras has “Krewes” and Carnival has “Mas Camps” which parade down the road in costumes representing their group. Both Mardi Gras and Carnival have big bands that play music as the “revelers” parade down the street. Not to mention the various food dishes and drinks that are staples in both celebrations. Both attract tourists from all over the world every year and both have inspired the creation of other similar celebrations throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean.
Both celebrations prove that we have more in common than we think. Even though 2,267 miles lie between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Port of Spain, Trinidad, a tradition is shared with the same origins. Similar to the Isis Celebration in Egypt, which then inspired celebrations in Europe, the celebration before lent inspired two famous events we know today as Mardi Gras and Carnival. It’s a small world, isn’t it?