Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is a carnival celebration, a type of holiday that dissolves the usual boundaries of polite society in favor of raucous over-indulgence. Traditionally, people wear masks on carnival days to allow role reversal and outrageous behavior.
Historically, masks allowed people of lower classes to mix undetected with aristocrats, men to dress as women, humans to look like animals, all of which would have been considered taboo outside the carnival season.
Mardi Gras events are hosted by krewes, elite social clubs in New Orleans who organize the parades and private parties associated with the holiday. Krewe members wears masks on the floats to hide their identities.
Official Mardi Gras colors—purple, green and gold—were chosen by the krewe of the Rex parade in 1872. Purple symbolizes justice, green, faith, and gold, power. These colors often feature on Mardi Gras masks.
Actors of Ancient Greece wore masks on stage to convey exaggerated emotions. Many cultures created and buried death masks with corpses of prominent people. Those celebrating Halloween and the Mexican Day of the Dead wear masks to ward off fear or honor the dead. Ceremonial overtones of death, chaos and laughter also inform the masks worn on Mardi Gras.
More ornate masks will cover the entire face and head. They are often decorated with feathers, jewels and glitter to convey the sense of flamboyant indulgence associated with Mardi Gras. Some masks cover only the eyes; others leave the mouth exposed.
Candice Bailey is a poet living in Austin, Texas. She moved here from Mississippi, where she taught poetry classes and tutored student-athletes in literature at the University of Mississippi. She began her study of creative writing at age 15, when she attended the Alabama School of Fine Arts.