Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) And The Carnival Season In France

You’ve heard of Mardi-Gras and Carnival but do you know what it is or how it’s celebrated? Here’s a look at how, when, where and why it’s celebrated in France. It’ll all make sense soon.

When and What Exactly Is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras which means “Fat Tuesday” in French is the day when people are allowed to live it up, eat rich and fatty foods before commencing Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday when many Christians around the world traditionally give up a chosen luxury and fast for 40 days leading up to Easter.

Think of Mardi Gras as the last hurrah before entering into Lent.

Since Mardi Gras is exactly 47 days before Easter, the date of Mardi Gras fluctuates as does Easter.

Mardi Gras drummer dressed as a weird jester I think

The Carnival Season In France

What you may not know about the day of Mardi Gras is that it also marks the end of the entire Carnival season that officially begins on January 6th known as Epiphany, Three Kings Days and the 12th day of Christmas. In other words, Mardi Gras is an actual day that falls within the carnival season.

You can read about Epiphany, Three Kings day and learn how it’s celebrated in France.

Huge crowds watching the Carnival in Nice

If you’re confused, don’t feel bad, I was confused by all these intertwined dates too. Below, I’ve listed a convenient timeline of events starting from Christmas leading up to easter.

Timeline of events leading up to Mardi Gras & Easter.

-ChristmasDecembre 25th:

-New Year’s EveDecembre 31st.

-New Years DayJanuary 1st.

-Epiphany aka 3 Kings Day and the 12th day of Christmas which also marks the beginning of Carnival season – January 6th

-La Chandeleur  aka National crepe day- 2nd of February

-Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) – Always on a Tuesday exactly 47 days before Easter & 1 day before Lent. Not all parades happen on this day. They can happen anytime during the carnival season all the way into March.

-Lent aka Ash Wednesday– Always on a Wednesday exactly 46 days before Easter.   (Also marks the end of Carnival season but some cities celebrate Carnival in March)

-Easter – Always on a Sunday, usually after the first Full Moon occurring on or after the March equinox.

-Easter Monday – The day after Easter and is always a holiday in France

Carnival Nice dancers

How is Mardi Gras celebrated in France?

Although Mardi Gras has religious roots, today it’s mainly known as a time of Carnivals, parades, costumes, and celebrations for school-aged children and adults alike.

carnival Nice dancer costumeMardi Gras and kids in France:

Every year, schools across France celebrate Carnival by throwing a mini carnival party where parents get to watch their kids parade around in their Mardi Gras costumes. Similar to how North American kids might go to school dressed up for Halloween.

If the schools have the budget and time, they might even serve some Mardi Gras treats which are typically sweet. But not any old sweet treat.

carnival at daughters school in France. She's half mermaid, half princessTraditional Mardi Gras Confectionary

Traditionally crepes, waffles, and “les beignets” donuts are eaten on Mardi gras- all fatty foods. Each region of France has their own version of traditional Mardi Gras treats. For example “Les Beignets”, which are basically donuts, go by different names and the recipe varies by region.

Here are a few examples.

  • Les “Beugnons” in Le Berry
  • Les “Merveilles” in Charente
  • Les “Fritelles” in Corse
  • Les “Bugnes” in Lyon.
  • Les “Chichifregi” in Nice and Marseille
  • Les “Rondiaux” in Orléanais
  • Les “Tourtisseaux” in Poitou

In the south of France where we live, you’re more likely to find something called “les Oreillettes” instead of waffles or beignets which are fried puff pastry covered in sugar. They remind me of flat crunchy Churros and they are delicious.

But It’s not just the kids who celebrate Carnival in France.

Dad walking daughter to school on the day of carnival. Kids all dress up for the carnival festivities.

 

Daddy walking daughter to school on the day of the school carnival. She was super excited.

Annual Carnival Parade in France (Le Carnaval)

You’ve no doubt heard the infamous stories of the Louisiana Mardi Gras festivities. People running around the streets, drinking, throwing beads, getting crazy with lots of purple and gold everywhere.

Mardi Gras and Carnival aren’t quite celebrated like that in France.  But then again, that’s normal because no two carnival celebrations are exactly the same..

Carnival de Nice

Every February, over a million tourists from around the world, come to watch the Carnival de Nice- held on the French Riviera in Nice which lasts for about two weeks. It’s one of the biggest and most well known around the world. Not as big as the one in Rio de Janeiro which is said to attract over 2 million people per day and not nearly as wild.

Each year the Carnival de Nice has a different theme. There are usually six parades spread out over the two week period consisting of about 17 floats and over 1,000 dancers from all four corners of the world. Every float and every dancer will usually follow the theme of the parade for that year. So if the theme of the parade for that year is space then every float will be designed around that theme and all the dancers will be dressed in costume around that theme as well.

The city of Nice has been celebrating Carnival since the middle ages.  The earliest record dates back to 1294 when Charles of Anjou, the Count of Provence and King of Sicily wrote that he had passed “the joyous days of carnival“, making the Nice Carnival quite possibly one of the oldest if not the Original Carnival.One of the many huge floats at the Nice CarnivalOther places in France to celebrate Mardi Gras and “le Carnaval”.

Nice isn’t the only place in France that celebrates the Carnival season with parades, drinking, costumes and singing in the streets. There are several other smaller but equally impressive ones to visit.

Carnival of Dunkerque:

Unlike the Carnival in Nice, known for its flower-covered floats, there are no floats in the carnival of Dunkerque. Instead, there are mass processions, with everyone getting into the act. It’s not unusual to see men dressed up with boobs and a mini skirt but also garish and grotesque costumes. No wonder it’s often described as one of the craziest carnival celebrations in France.

Annecy Venetian Carnival:

Perhaps the carnival in France with the most beautiful costumes because of the Venetian-style masks.

Annecy carnival costumes usually people dress up with beautiful venetian masks.

Photo source via (wikimedia.org)

Paris Carnival

Despite dating back to 1411, many Parisians don’t even know a Carnival parade even exists. This might have something to do with the fact that the carnival took a hiatus between 1952 and 1957.

These days the Paris Carnival consists of an annual parade that usually begins at the Place Gambetta and ends at Place de la République where a big street party ensues and people in extravagant outfits dance, play music and drums, sing and just get down right crazy.

Mulhouse Carnival:

Thanks to it’s proximity to Germany, Switzerland, and Germany, the Carnival of Mulhouse does their carnival a little different. Carnival in Mulhouse, also referred to as a “Fasnacht Carnival” (Fasnacht is a German word that translates to “Fast Night” in English) refers to eating the very best foods before fasting for Lent.

Fasnacht is also the name for their own version of the beignet.

What makes their parade different is that the parade floats and costumes are usually based on Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte or inspired by local events. The result is masks that look very morphed, like grotesque caricatures.

fasnacht mask for carnival in Mulhouse always tend to look like grotesque morphed caricatures

Photo source (Abi’s Photography)

Other carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations around France

There are many more cities in France that celebrate the carnival season with parades and fanfare. Each with their own flare and traditions, just smaller than the ones mentioned in this article.

Carnival in France is a wonderful thing to experience and if you get a chance, I highly recommend you visit a town during the Carnival season and partake in the festivities.

Donald Trump float for Carnival in Chur Switzerland.

I leave you with this float of “The Donald” from the Carnival, not in France but in Switzerland. 

About the Author

Annie André Is a half Thai, half French Canadian/American freelance writer, digital marketer and author of THE LIVE IN FRANCE GUIDE: an expat travel and lifestyle blog featuring destination guides, inspiration, travel tips, personal advice and anecdotes on working, living and playing in France. ( Equal parts weird, wacky and wonderful).