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March 1, 2012

Vintage Photos of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 1938

The terms "Mardi Gras", "Mardi Gras season", and "Carnival season", in English, refer to events of the Carnival celebrations, beginning on or after Epiphany and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi gras is French for Fat Tuesday, referring to the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season, which begins on Ash Wednesday; in English the day is sometimes referred to as Shrove Tuesday, from the word shrive, meaning "confess."

Related popular practices are associated with celebrations before the fasting and religious obligations associated with the penitential season of Lent. Popular practices include wearing masks and costumes, overturning social conventions, dancing, sports competitions, parades, etc. Similar expressions to Mardi Gras appear in other European languages sharing the Christian tradition. In English, the day is called Shrove Tuesday, associated with the religious requirement for confession before Lent begins.

Relatively early on in its remarkable, decades-long run as a weekly magazine, LIFE turned its eye toward always-enticing, ever-vivid New Orleans and that great city’s signature, defining event: Mardi Gras. In February, 1938, editors sent photographer William Vandivert (later a charter member of Magnum) to the Big Easy to chronicle the carnival — and to show LIFE’s readers how one American city, more Caribbean than Southern in so many ways, maintained a centuries-old tradition of refined debauchery and plain, unalloyed fun in the midst of the Great Depression.


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