The City of New Orleans may get all of the fame and notoriety for hosting a grand Mardi Gras bash, but there are many more celebrations around the world with just as much pomp and pageantry. This week, Z’Scoop brings you two of the best places in America besides New Orleans to celebrate Fat Tuesday, and another five fabulous celebrations of Carnival that are happening around the world.
Mobile, Alabama hosts America’s original Fat Tuesday. Mobile first hosted a Mardi Gras celebration in 1703, predating any celebration in New Orleans by at least a decade. Settled as the capital of the French Louisiana territory, Mobile hosted celebrations and parades until 1718, when the capital of French Louisiana was moved to New Orleans. Ironically the locals feared Mobile was too susceptible to destruction by hurricanes.
The celebration began again in Mobile in 1866 and continues today. In the weeks before Lent, some 35 parades wind their way through the streets of Mobile, and the celebration attracts over 1 million visitors each year.
St. Louis, MO
Founded by the French some 250 years ago, the Soulard district — a historic French district and St. Louis’s oldest neighborhood — hosts a series of parties throughout Carnival and leading to Mardi Gras. The largest parade is the Grand Parade, which features more than 100 floats and attracts thousands of visitors each year.
Humans aren’t the only ones that get in on the Mardi Gras fun in St. Louis — the city hosts a pet parade that boasts hundreds of animals and over 70,000 two-legged participants.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Mardi Gras, in reality, is but a single day in the weeks-long party known as Carnival — and when it comes to Carnival, no place does it quite like Rio de Janeiro, which has long been known as “Carnival Capital of the World.” The celebration draws half a million visitors each year — and those are just the ones coming from outside of Brazil. All told, some 2 million people take part in Rio’s Carnival, which officially lasts for five days before Mardi Gras.
The highlight of Rio’s Carnival is the Samba parade, which takes place each year at the Sambodromo, a special stadium built specifically to house the annual event. Social clubs consisting of 3,000 to 5,000 members, representing particular neighborhoods in Rio, spend all year preparing for the parade, and compete with other clubs based on their dancing, costumes and music. The competition takes place over several nights, with five or clubs parading each night.
Nice, tucked away in the French Riviera along the Mediterranean Coast, is the birthplace of French Carnival — it was here in the 1294 that the Count of Provence, Charles d’Anjou, celebrated the “joyous days of Carnival,” the earliest mention of a Carnival celebration in France. Now one of the largest Carnivals in the world, Nice introduced decorative floats and processions into its festivities in 1873.
Carnival is the main winter event in Nice, which, thanks to its location, enjoys moderate temperatures during the winter months. For 15 days, the city hosts parades that feature over 1,000 performers and musicians. Each year, the city chooses a theme for Carnival that is used as inspiration for floats and costumes throughout the festival and during the Grand Parade that signals Carnival’s beginning.
2017’s Carnival theme is “The King of Energy.” The Battle of the Flowers is another feature of a Nice Carnival; throughout the festival, during various parades, two performers toss thousands of flowers into the audience. Over the course of the festival, some 100,000 flowers are thrown into the crowds.
Each year on the Tuesday before Lent in the Belgian town of Binche, masked men known as Gilles roam the streets all day as part of a Unesco-recognized festival, the Carnival of Binche. Though the town of Binche begins celebrating seven weeks before Lent — with dancing and music each Sunday — the Carnival truly comes to life in the three days before Lent, culminating with Mardi Gras, when Gilles are permitted to wear their costumes — consisting of a tunic, an ostrich feather hat and a wax mask — from sunrise to sunset (though they are forbidden from leaving Binche while in costume).
The day begins with the ceremonial dressing of the Gilles, who then lead a procession through the town, followed by participants dressed as peasants and harlequins, as well as musicians. The parade ends outside Binche’s Grand Place, where the Gilles dance beneath a firework-lit sky. The festival attracts thousands of participants, though only men born and raised in Binche (or those who have been residents for at least five years) can dress as a Gille.
The festival dates back to the 14th century, though its origins are unknown. According to author Martin Dunford, the unique costume of a Gille might date back to 1549 and be inspired by the outfits worn to celebrate the addition of Peru to the Habsburg Empire (the costumes, Dunford claims, are a 16th-century representation of a traditional Incan garb).
Carnival doesn’t necessarily begin or end with the Epiphany or Lent: decorative masks hang from shop windows year-round, almost as ubiquitous a symbol of Venice as striped gondoliers or the twisting spires of Saint Mark’s Basilica. For a city that once was home to notorious figures like Giacomo Casanova, Carnival offers perfect blend of historic opulence and raucous fun.
Venetian Carnival is thought to have originated as a celebration of a 12th-century military victory, wherein the vanquished Ulrich II of Treven was forced to pay annual tribute to the city of Venice by giving the city 12 loaves of bread, 12 pigs and one bull. The bull — serving as a stand-in for Ulrich — was publicly slaughtered in the Piazza di San Marco around the Thursday before Lent in remembrance of the victory.
Around the 13th century, written records show that Venetians were wearing masks to the celebration. Today, as in centuries past, Saint Mark’s Square remains the focal point of Venice’s Carnival, with a costume competition being held in the square during the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras (the final winner is chosen on Mardi Gras itself).
In Sydney, Mardi Gras is more than a celebration before the beginning of Lent — it’s a chance for Australia’s LGBTQ community to come together to “inspire the world to love each other by celebrating the power and beauty of diversity.” Today, Carnival is widely popular throughout the global LGBTQ community, drawing thousands of visitors to Sydney in the weeks before Mardi Gras to take part in citywide celebrations. But the first event in 1978 faced violent police opposition, as Sydney police arrested and allegedly beat 53 participants in the first Pride Parade.
The violent reaction toward the parade helped influence a series of civil rights legislation, with the parliament of New South Wales revoking a piece of legislation that had allowed the arrests to be made and replacing it with a new Public Assemblies Act that allowed Sydney residents to gather in demonstration without a permit. The act paved the way for the modern Mardi Gras celebrations and parades, which gained popularity within the LGBTQ community (and outside of it) throughout the early 1980s.
Today, the highlight of the event is the Mardi Gras parade, always held on the first Sunday in March. The 2017 theme for Sydney’s Mardi Gras is “Creating Equality.” The parade is one of the world’s largest LGBTQ events, with around 10,000 participants and nearly 150 floats. After the parade, the city hosts a party that has been known to end at 8 a.m.
As you can see, you don’t have to be in New Orleans or even Rio de Janeiro to have a blast at Carnival time. There are many cities around the world that observe this celebration of the Fat Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. So check out a city near where you live, and plan a Winter Jaunt of your own to celebrate a fabulous Mardi Gras!
All books are available at amazon.com. Click on titles for more information.
Mardi Gras Treasures: Costume Designs of the Golden Age Postcard Book
by Henri Schindler
Mardi Gras … As It Was
by Robert Tallant
Hand Book of the Carnival, Containing Mardi-Gras, Its Ancient and Modern Observance
by John W. Madden
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