Feb 232009
Authors: Chloe Wittry

No matter where students believe the popular French tradition of Mardi Gras came from, most are familiar with the unbridled debauchery that it has brought to New Orleans and other American cities since the early 19th century.

Misconceptions of the celebration’s origins range from the idea that Southerners created the holiday to the idea that the black community created the celebration to mark the end of the Civil War.

But Paola Malpezzi Price, a CSU professor of French and Italian, said the annual jamboree was created to allow those steeped in the Catholic religion to cut loose before strict moral boundaries are imposed the day after by Lent, a 40-day fast performed before Easter.

“The world was turned up-side-down during the celebration,” Malpezzi Price said. “People experienced unbridled freedom in expressing hidden wishes and desires.”

The celebration dates back to 2nd century Rome, wherein communities participated in Lupercalia, a circus-type festival that was similar to the modern day Mardi Gras celebrations in which people feasted and drank for several days.

When Christians arrived in Rome, they wanted to incorporate the specific ritual of the Romans into their new faith rather than abolish it.

Also referred to as Carnival, which translates from Latin as “farewell to the flesh,” according to Mardi Gras Web site http://novareinna.com, Mardi Gras participants wore costumes and masks to gatherings.

Malpezzi Price said masking identities ensured anonymity, as well as the ability to assume another identity to mock or covet.

Mardi Gras found its way to New Orleans via a French explorer named Sieur d’Iberville, whose exploration of the Mississippi River in 1699 sparked American involvement in the celebration.

More than a century later, celebrations became more elaborate, and in 1839, the first Mardi Gras float rolled through the streets.

Now, the celebration has bloomed into an extravagant gala, as Metairie, La., resident Melvin Daigrepont can attest.

Daigrepont, grandfather to sophomore journalism major and Collegian staffer Scott Callahan, said for most of his life he’d step out of his New Orleans suburban home during the late-winter celebration, finding himself immersed in loud, energetic music as he watched floats decorated in green, purple and gold roll down the street.

“It’s the greatest free show on earth,” Daigrepont said.

He said the party stretches more than three weeks, eventually culminating on Fat Tuesday, or the last day before Lent. Mardi Gras supporters help raise money for floats, plan parade routs and pay the city for any clean up.

“These are not small parades,” Daigrepont said. “Everything is very much exaggerated — the floats, the decorations, the costumes, the live bands, and the excitement.”

Despite usual stereotypes, Daigrepont said Mardi Gras is a family-oriented tradition, saying the city is “one of the safest places to be in the world” and streets are cleaned immediately following the festivities.

Today, communities around the world celebrate Mardi Gras.

The Association for Student Activity Programming hosted the Mardi Gras Ball Saturday evening, allowing students to immerse themselves in a traditional Mardi Gras celebration.

Students attending found live music, people dressed in flashy clothes, dancing, food and drinks.

While most people at the event didn’t know the exact origins of the Mardi Gras celebration, most students said they intended to have a good time and hang out in an exciting atmosphere.

“I came to the ball because it is free, and it is a good excuse to get dressed up and dance,” said Denise Richardson, a freshman psychology major.

Staff writer Chloe Wittry can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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