17 Things You Never Knew About Mardi Gras
Everyone’s heard of this lively day of parades, masks, and beads—but most people don’t really know why it’s celebrated. Here’s the surprising history behind the holiday, observed this year on Tuesday, March 5.
Mardi Gras dates back to the Middle Ages
Although we associate Mardi Gras with New Orleans, its roots actually go back to Europe in the Middle Ages. In the Catholic religion, Lent comprises the 40 days leading up to Easter. It’s a time of fasting and sacrifice, and many people today still give something up for Lent. The day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent, is known as Fat Tuesday or “Mardi Gras” in French, so named because people would stuff themselves before the period of fasting began. Naturally, this turned into an excuse for a big party and became a secular celebration known for overindulgence in food and drink.
It might also have pagan roots
Some historians say this Catholic feast, like other religious events, blended with pagan rituals to form the Mardi Gras holiday as we know it today. Celebrations of spring, the season of fertility and rebirth, included the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia in mid-February. To make it easier to convert pagans, the Catholic Church likely incorporated this raucous celebration with a feast leading up to Lent. Read up on 9 other myths and legends about Easter traditions.
It started in Mobile, Alabama
So how did Mardi Gras make its way to America? Contrary to popular belief, the festival didn’t actually begin in New Orleans, but rather in present-day Mobile, Alabama. The first Mardi Gras occurred when French explorer brothers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville were camped on the Gulf Coast in 1699. Realizing it was Mardi Gras, March 2, they named the spot Point du Mardi Gras. Bienville became the founder of New Orleans and Mobile—where the first American Mardi Gras celebration is said to have been established in 1703. To this day, Mobile puts on a huge festival for Mardi Gras. Here are more historic firsts from every U.S. state.
“Krewes” run New Orleans’ parades
Although Mardi Gras parties and balls were thrown in New Orleans during the 18th and early 19th centuries, the modern parades as we know them began in 1857, when the first was put on by a secret society called the Mistick Krewe of Comus (whose original members were actually from Mobile). More krewes were established as years went on, including Krewes of Rex, Proteus, and Zulu, which paraded their own floats. The krewes today continue to organize and fund the Mardi Gras parades through dues, fundraising, and merchandise. Each krewe comes up with an elaborate theme for their floats each year and puts a huge amount of effort into the preparation. But no tickets are needed for the parades, which is why Mardi Gras is called “The Greatest Free Show on Earth.”
There are more parades leading up to Mardi Gras
Although Mardi Gras itself is one day, Mardi Gras season, known as Carnival, begins weeks before on Twelfth Night, literally the twelfth night after Christmas (as in the “12 Days of Christmas” referred to in the song). The end of the 12 nights, January 6, is the Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian tradition. It’s also known as Three Kings Day, recognizing when the Three Wise Men came bearing gifts for baby Jesus. Carnival may get its name from the Latin carnelevarium, meaning to remove meat, as is done during Lent. In New Orleans, the entire season of Carnival is full of parades, not just on Mardi Gras itself—in fact, if you visit earlier in the season, you can likely score better deals on hotels while still enjoying the festivities.
Why beads are thrown
If you attend a Mardi Gras parade, chances are you will be overwhelmed with beads thrown from the floats, as well as toys, stuffed animals, cups, doubloons, and other goodies. (Pro tip: Bring a bag to hold them all.) All you need to do to get one is yell, “Throw me something, mister!” (No “flashing” is required.) But how did the tradition of “throws” begin? In the early years of the parades, these trinkets may have been tossed as an incentive to get people to watch the parades (as if they needed another reason to celebrate!). While some throws may end up in the garbage on Ash Wednesday, signature collectibles from the krewes are beautifully decorated and worth holding onto, including Zulu coconuts, Muses shoes, Nyx purses, Alla genie lamps, and Carrollton shrimp boots.
Mardi Gras is family-friendly
Despite what you may see in pictures or on TV, people who live in New Orleans will tell you Mardi Gras actually a very kid-friendly event. The drunken debauchery is largely contained to Bourbon Street and the French Quarter—where most parades don’t even go due to the narrowness of the streets. But you should be prepared to attend with children: Set up camp near a porta-potty (or near your hotel room), bring snacks and water, and tell your kids what to do if they get lost and to be careful near the floats. Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, is known to be even more kid-friendly, in part because it doesn’t draw the hoards of tourists that the Cresent City celebration does. Here are more of the best family-friendly destinations in every state.
It has traditional colors
Have you ever noticed many Mardi Gras beads and costumes feature the colors of green, purple, and gold? While this color combo is certainly vivid and dazzling, there’s actually a history behind it. The hues date back to 1892, when the Krewe of Rex chose its float theme as “Symbolism of Colors:” The green was for faith, gold for power, and purple for justice. Although it’s a little unclear why these colors represented these symbols, purple and gold are definitely regal, and the green is a nice complement to them. Interestingly, legend says Louisiana State University chose its colors of purple and gold because of the availability of Mardi Gras merchandise in those hues—leaving rival Tulane University the green. Is this true? It can’t be confirmed, but it makes for a good story!
Mardi Gras has yearly royalty
Another reason royal purple may have been chosen is to honor the kings and queens of Mardi Gras—yes, this holiday has royalty, possibly hearkening back to Three Kings Day, which kicks off Carnival. The tradition began in 1872 when the Krewe of Rex proclaimed the first Rex, King of Carnival. Now, each krewe chooses a king and queen every year, announced at private—and exclusive—formal balls. While you don’t need an invitation to see the parades, you do need to know a krewe member to get an invite to a ball. Royal courts are also chosen. Some krewes don’t make the identity of the king and queen public; if the royals parade, they may wear masks. These are 15 most photographed tourist attractions in the Americas.
The history of king cakes
This traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras treat is fit for a king! It’s a rich cake that’s braided into a circle and covered with glaze and sugar in the Mardi Gras colors. King cakes may also be filled with cinnamon, chocolate, or cream cheese. Again tying into Three Kings Day and the infant Jesus, the king cake conceals a tiny baby figurine, and the person who finds it in their slice gets good luck—as well as the duty of making the next cake. Similar cakes are made in France and Mexico in celebration of Three Kings Day. In New Orleans, the king cake is also said to be connected to another old tradition of baking a ring into a cake to determine the king or queen of Mardi Gras balls. Check out these fascinating Easter traditions from around the world.