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Carnivals, pancakes and excess: What Mardi Gras means to the French

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Carnivals, pancakes and excess: What Mardi Gras means to the French
Photo: AFP
12:58 CET+01:00
Mardi Gras is upon us and in France that means it's time to eat, dress up and hit the local carnival. Here's what you need to know about where the "fat Tuesday" festival comes from and how to celebrate it the French way.
According to a recent poll, Mardi Gras remains an incredibly popular festival in France with seven out of ten French people celebrating it. 
 
Here's what you need to know about joining in with the fun of Mardi Gras in France. 
 
Where does it come from?
 
The festival, which was adopted by the Christians from a Pagan festival, marks the last day before Lent when people traditionally fast for 40 days and 40 nights. 
 
That means Mardi Gras is all about eating and celebrating in excess before the period of moderation and self-denial begins - hence the English translation of Mardi Gras - "Fat Tuesday".
 
Nice Carnival. Photo: AFP
 
During Lent, Christians are traditionally supposed to abstain from meat, eggs, as well as sugary and fatty foods.  
 
But even if you're not religious, Mardi Gras in France is still used as an excuse to eat some delicious treats and, of course, party. 
 
What are the culinary specialties of Mardi Gras?
 
Mardi Gras -- which is the same day as Shrove Tuesday -- is a day for eating pancakes just like in many other countries. 
 
This is because people used to use the opportunity to use up any left over eggs in the cupboard before the start of Lent. 
 
As well as crepes, there are also regional specialties in France. 
 
Photo: Jack Zalium/Flickr
 
In the historical south-central region of the Limousin people eat prune pie made with brioche dough. 
 
And small donuts are popular around the country.
 
In Lyon they are called bugnes, and in Bordeaux and Provence they're known as merveilles and oreillettes, respectively. 
 
They can be made with lemon, orange blossom or vanilla. And some are stuffed with jam or chocolate.
 
Waffles are also a popular sweet treat over Mardi Gras. 
 
And what about the carnivals?
 
Carnival is all about letting off some steam. 
 
Originally Mardi Gras marked the last day of the festivities and was considered the ultimate day of celebration.
 
Today most French people associate Mardi Gras with wearing disguises or fancy dress, with nearly nine out of ten of them considering it a time for children to dress up and party.
Photo: AFP
 
The most famous carnivals in France are in Nice, which is known for its stunning floats, and Dunkerque, where herring are thrown into the crowd. 
 
Nice Carnival starts just after Mardi Gras on February 17th and continues until March 3rd while in Dunkerque the carnival takes place in the lead up to the festival. 
 
But it isn't all fun and games.
 
This year in Dunkerque, the event which is usually attended by tens of thousands of people, was clouded in controversy due to the tradition of some people choosing to wear black make-up and clothing to resemble African tribal figures.
 
Where is Mardi Gras celebrated most in France?
 
Mardi Gras is most popular in the north of France, with 40 percent of people in the Hauts-de-France region celebrating the festival.
 
Brittany is just one exception to the rule, where only 18 percent of people celebrate Mardi Gras, according to a recent poll. 
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