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Mardi Gras by any other name is still a party

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Mardi Gras, known variously around the globe as Carnivale, Carnaval, Fasching, Shrove Tuesday, and Martedi Grasso, is always a party, whether it's in New Orleans, Quebec City, Rio, Venice or Binche, Belgium. It's celebrated variously, as well, sometimes for a day or several days, and sometimes for an entire season, beginning in November. Mardi Gras 2014 is Tuesday, March 4.

German festivities end with Faschnicht which literally means "the night before the fast." The Italian name is Martedi Grasso. Even "carnival" stems from the Latin Carne Vale, which means "goodbye to meat," a reference to Lent beginning the next day. In the United Kingdom, the week before Ash Wednesday is known as Shrovetide; in Sweden, the festival is celebrated as Fastan. And in Brazil, Carnaval attracts 70 percent of the country's tourists.

Planning for Fasching, observed in almost every German city, begins with a meeting of the "Council of 11" wearing "fool's caps with little bells" at 11:11 a.m. on Nov. 11. Celebrations begin in earnest the week before, with Ladies' Day on Thursday, during which a woman may kiss any man of her choice by cutting off his tie! The silliness extends through the weekend to Rose Monday, when traditional parades are held. The culmination of the yearly celebration is the masked ball held on Tuesday night.

The Carnival of Binche, in Belgium, was named to UNESCO's list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanityin 2003. It is unique in the world, characterized by the day-long parade of more than 1,000 Gilles, all male, who circulate through the town to traditional music and songs. The origin of the ornate costumes and wax masks is unclear, but the celebration has continued, virtually unchanged, since at least the 18th century. In the afternoon, participants traditionally throw blood oranges to the onlookers.

Celebrations often employ masks and costumes to allow a "loosening" of inhibitions, and to protect modesty and reputations during the traditional and accepted overindulgences of the holiday. In this country, Mardi Gras is generally a tradition of French-speaking areas and is not celebrated nationally. In addition to New Orleans, notable celebrations are held in Galveston, St. Louis, Mobile, San Diego and Nevada City, Calif.

If you're celebrating Mardi Gras in your community, you probably know that masks in the traditional colors of purple, green and gold are readily available, as are beads and full costumes. There are, of course, local bakeries where you can order the traditional "King Cake," or you can order one shipped to your door from New Orleans. Beignets, or French doughnuts, are also traditional and popular, as are pancakes. Plan to serve some special French or Cajun foods, including such dishes as gumbo and crawfish, serve plenty of libations, and get ready for the more somber, serious season of Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday.

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