Few will surprised by the pagan origins of Mardi Gras. The indulgence in food and wine and the relaxed sexual mores that accompany the festival are akin to the bacchanalia of the pre-Christian era, when the Romans would celebrate the spring equinox with gusto and abandon.
And it makes perfect sense. As the weather begins to change and the first thaw of winter arrives, it's only natural that we would want to celebrate the warmer temperatures, the greater abundance of food, the wine that we put down in the cellars after the harvest in the fall (now ready to drink), and the fact the we survived the cold season.
But few are aware of the fact that Mardi Gras, as we know it today, originated not in New Orleans or France but rather in medieval Venice, where the early people of Northeastern Italy had established a city on a lagoon as they fled the Barbaric invasions from the north across the Alps.
By the Renaissance, Venice -- already a major political, mercantile, and cultural hub of Europe -- had become the Las Vegas of its day, the European capital of prostitution and gambling (did you know that the condom was invented in Venice to prevent the spread of syphilis, a disease delivered from the New World by the Conquistadores?).
The Venetian Carnevale (the word that gives us Carnival in English) was organized by the city in the period before Lent to attract one last blast of tourism before Catholics had to give up meat (Mardi Gras always takes place on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins).
The word itself is believed to come from the Latin carnem levare, in other words, the removal (or lifting) of meat (although the etymology has never been entirely documented).
Mardi gras or martedì grasso (not fat Tuesday but rather fatty or greasy Tuesday) was the very last day that meat (as well as milk and eggs) could be consumed before Lent. The term is Italian in origin and is derived from a common usage in Renaissance Italian: The expression giorno di magro (a lean day) was widely employed in Italian Renaissance cookery books to denote recipes for non-meat days (and there were many in the Renaissance calendar, beyond Lent, Fridays, and Christmas Eve). One of the Renaissance chef's biggest challenges was cooking without meat, dairy, poultry, or eggs on the many days of the year when those foods could not be consumed. A giorno grasso or greasy day was a day when meat (fat and grease) could be consumed.
Ultimately, the Italian martedì grasso became the French mardi gras, an expression transmitted to contemporary American culture via the French colonization of modern-day Louisiana, where Mardi Gras is still widely celebrated.
Jews, by the way, have a similar spring equinox festival, Purim, also related to the early pagan spring rituals. It's the only day the rabbis tell their congregants to get drunk. And I've even met Orthodox Jews who eat pork on Purim (no kidding).
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During carnevale and Mardi Gras in Italy, ogni scherzo vale, the saying goes, all pranks and jokes are allowed. It's a time to release the tension of a cold winter by letting it all hang out and indulging in pure pleasure.
What wine will you be drinking for Mardi Gras tonight?