Tuesday 21 February 2012

Mardi Gras

Today is Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras (which means “Fat Tuesday”), and signals the start of the Christian season of Lent. During that period Christians are encouraged to “give something up for Lent”, meaning that they should go without something they really like for 40 days until Easter. After the excesses of the Christmas period which officially ends on February 1st.(in my childhood my chapel always held it’s Christmas parties at the end of January), the denial of favourite things during Lent was a good way of making sure you could still enjoy the next big celebration of the year with ample time to recover from Christmas. Originally Christians gave up certain foods for Lent (particularly meat and diary products) so what they had in store had to be eaten up on Shrove Tuesday. That meant using up flour and eggs by making pancakes. Hence today is also called Pancake Day.

The great feastings and celebrations before the start of Lent tomorrow developed into carnivals and colourful masked parades that were held throughout Europe during the medieval period. Combine this with the river-borne decorated boats (called floats) of other celebrations and you get the typical gay Pride parade, with the fantastic costumes and colour, large decorated vehicles, and half-naked (sometimes fully naked) hunks cavorting around in the streets.

Naked men chasing each other were part of the Roman festival of Lupercalia which was held in mid-February. In the typical role-reversal you find in all these types of festival, priests would dress up in goat skins and chase naked youths through the corn fields. These youths represented wolves, and the priests chasing them represented goats and symbolised the protection of livestock and crops from wild animals. The day ended with feasting and drinking (and no doubt a bit of ritual sex between the captor “goats” and captured “wolves”), and the sacrifice of a dog.

The festival was named after Lupercus, the god of shepherds, the Roman version of the Greek god Pan (Pan’s own gay credentials were revealed in my post on the constellation Capricorn).

The name Mardi Gras has come to be used for carnivals, parades and celebrations at other times of the year – a lot of gay Prides were rename Mardi Gras for a brief time, including London Pride. The most famous one still is – Sydney Mardi Gras. It signals the first of the big lgbt street parades every year and has become one of the biggest and most important of all Pride events.

The Sydney Mardi Gras began as most early gay Prides did, as a commemoration of the Stonewall Riots of June 1969 in New York. Sydney held their first Pride event in June 1978. Being in the southern hemisphere June in Sydney is in the middle of winter so it was moved to their summer in February 1981. Their Pride was already being called Mardi Gras by then, so it was probably a conscious decision to move it to the traditional Mardi Gras season.

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras now attracts over 10,000 participants and it is a major feature of the city’s tourist calendar. It also holds a unique place in the UK, as the Sydney Mardi Gras parade of February 1999 is the only lgbt Pride parade that has been broadcast on UK national television in its entirety (although it was broadcast 5 months later on 3rd June).

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