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What is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras has become synonymous with raucous partying that includes beads, masks, krewes, and parades (and of course, free flowing libations) and can be found lighting up New Orleans (and other fun-loving places) in early February or March. Mardi Gras is a French term that literally means Fat Tuesday, a time for eating rich fatty foods (sounds like a hella great time to us).

In other places like the UK, it is also known as Strove (or shrive) Tuesday which literally means “confess” (Bo, What a buzzkill). You may also hear of it referred to in Brazil and other Latin countries as Carnevale (yay, the party’s back!).

Mardi Gras has been called  “Greatest free party on Earth”.

Through Carnevale is sometimes printed or pronounced Carnival – a name that is associated with delightful, innocent fun– it is actually derived from the Latin “farewell to the flesh”, or the taking away of meat.

Mardi Gras actually has quite a fascinating and fun history. You might have wondered how it got started and eventually evolved into the celebrations we see around the world today. Well, the good news is—we know the answers to your Mardi Gras questions! Keep reading and we’ll fill you in on all the hot Mardi Gras gossip.

The Origins of Mardi Gras

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The origins of Mardi Gras​

Given it’s hard-partying ways, it might be hard to believe that Mardi Gras has religious roots. Though the last day of it is celebrated before the Roman Catholic period known as Lent and it is typically associated with those religious traditions, it’s celebrations are rooted in orgy and alcohol-fueled pagan spring fertility rites (Roman Lupercalia and Druid customs) that long pre-date Christianity.

Once Christianity became all the rage in Rome (around the 3rd or 4th century), Christendom blended pagan customs into their traditions so that pagan people would be more apt to accept it as the official religion.

Lent is a 40-day period of fasting and penance– hence the wildin’ out and hardcore fattening up of fat Tuesday, the day before the partying stops. It lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.

As a result, the excessive partying of Mardi Gras (pagan Lupercalia) came to be a prelude to the more austere Lent season (Roman Catholicism/Christianity). And once this new christianity spread its way around Europe, the Mardi Gras traditions went with it.

Mardi Gras goes to America

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How did Mardi Gras make its way to America and specifically New Orleans? As was mentioned, Mardi Gras bopped around Europe, making itself home mainly in Catholic countries like France. On March 3, 1699, two French explorers, Sieur de Bienville and Pierre Le Moyne d’ Iberville, made it all the way to the area we now call Louisiana, landing close to where New Orleans would be built. The day they landed, they celebrated finally getting off that cursed boat, kissed dry land (possible we made that part up) and named the spot Point du Mardi Gras. French settlers that followed over the decades also treated that day as a holiday and celebrated it with masked balls, street parties, and decadent meals. As long as Louisiana was under French rule, the good times kept rolling. In 1763, Spain took over the area and put a real crimp in the debauchery, banning Mardi Gras because they felt that things were getting too out of control. The ban remained in effect into the 1800s, until the French Creole population insisted that Mardi Gras was a must. It was reinstituted, Mardi Gras has been called the “greatest free party on earth”

Though Carnevale is sometimes printed or pronounced Carnival—a name that is associated with delightful, innocent fun– it is actually derived from the Latin “farewell to the flesh”, or the taking away of meat.

Lent is a 40-day period of fasting and penance—hence the wildin’ out and hardcore fattening up of Fat Tuesday,
the day before the partying stops. It lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. and everyone went buck-wild with it, causing a cap to be put on the fun so it didn’t become one year-
round party.

The Mardi Gras evolution

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Some sources say that many of the colorful traditions of Mardi Gras were started by a group of fun-loving college kids who came back from Paris and feeling inspired by what they had seen there, whooped it up. They danced through the streets of New Orleans wearing colorful masks and costumes. Well, who could resist an amazing outdoor costume dance party? Nobody in 19th century Louisiana could that’s for sure, and so others joined in the fun. In 1837, the first Mardi Gras parade marched down the streets of New Orleans and they haven’t stopped since.

Starting in the 19th century, Mardi Gras went from simple street parties to many of the elaborate affairs we see today. The men of an organization known as Comus were the ones that brought krewes (they called themselves Ye Mistick Krewe of Comus), themed parades, costumed masqueraders, and parade floats to the festivities.

Soon after other krewes formed. These sort of secret and pretty exclusive organizations put on Mardi Gras parades and elaborate balls. Members had to pay fees to join, sometimes thousands of dollars, but were given exclusive VIP access to Mardi Gras galas.

In 1871 the first bean cake (known as a King cake) was presented to a young, unmarried woman who was declared the Mardi Gras Queen, starting the royal traditions of the festivities.

The bean cake idea was actually derived from ancient tribal customs related to spring rites.

The party-innovators of 1872 wanted to flesh out the royal court a bit, so Mardi Gras Queens had a Rex, or King of the Carnival added to the fun. He wore the now traditional gold, green, and purple, and even had his own royal anthem “If I Ever Cease to Love”.

The King’s Ball  was held on Twelfth Night (the 12th night after Christmas, January 6th) and kicked off the ball-throwing season. Traditionally, a bean cake was cut during this party and the lucky winner had to throw the next ball.

Not long after, tossing beads and other trinkets from floats became popular. The crowds were all in. They grew in size, waiting for floats to pass by and yelling “Throw me something mister”, trying to score one of the coveted trinkets.

Mardi Gras in modern times

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The partying of Mardi Gras was so epic that not even some of the worst periods in history could kill its festive spirit. It survived through World War I, Prohibition, The Great Depression, and even World War II, coming out the other side not just unscathed, but bigger and wilder than ever. Here are some of the traditions that you’ll find in today’s Mardi Gras Celebrations.

  • Mardi Gras balls:
    After Christmas, it’s a gala ball every night. Spectacular affairs full of glittering and elaborate costumes (would you expect anything less?) are thrown by various krewes. Royal courts are chosen ahead of time and not revealed until the ball. Not content to just have a king or queen, everyone eventually wanted to get in on the royal action. Today, ladies-in-waiting, The bean cake idea was actually derived from ancient tribal customs related to spring rites. lieutenants, maids, and other “royalty” are chosen to make up a full royal court. In recent years, celebrities including Hollywood actors have been chosen for this regal honor.
  • King cakes:
    Not just for one lucky girl or future ball-hosters anymore, these days it is served to all unmarried women at Mardi Gras banquets. They may contain beans or baby figurines (which represents Christ as a child). It is also a popular custom for employers of office workers to bring a King cake to their employees. The winner (or loser?) has to buy a cake for the office the next day.
  • Tableaux:
    Dating back to medieval times, tableaux were show-like pageants put on where actors played out or wore customs to become living illustrations representing scenes from history and mythology. They were held on the day of a king or queen’s coronation and might be done in a parade-like fashion. All-night festivities followed. Today, similar tableaux are performed during Mardi Gras balls, and following medieval tradition, culminate in the coronation of the king and queen. After the royal court is presented, everyone dances and parties on til the break of dawn.
  • The Skull and Bone Gang:
    Going back to 1819, this gang had its roots in African spirituality. The tradition of the gang went on for some 200 years but took a brief hiatus. Now they’re back baby, and creepier than ever. If you are in the Treme neighborhood near the French Quarter and are brave enough to get up at 5am (or maybe you never even went to sleep), you might hear and see the gang coming through the neighborhood, knocking from door-to-door. Wearing skeleton customs (you can tell the chief of the gang by the antelope-eque antlers), they beat drums and dance through the streets chanting bone-chilling things like “If you don’t live right, the Bone Man is comin’ for ya”. *Shivers*
  • Mardi Gras Indians:
    Scattered throughout the city, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of costumed Mardi Gras Indians who especially appear on Super Sunday and at the jazz festival. There are about 3 dozen “tribes” that move throughout New Orleans neighborhoods dance battling, throwing shade, and song-fighting over whose chief is the “prettiest”. In all fairness, the chiefs go all out when it comes to their uber-elaborate beaded costumes that include brightly colored ostrich feathers, sequins, velvet, and rhinestones. The very definition of fabulous.
  • Parades:
    Is it really modern Mardi Gras if there aren’t parades full of float riders throwing out colorful beads, “doubloons”, moon pies, and other trinkets? Aside from the floats, colorfully dressed second line bands march throughout the city in all their pomp, blowing trumpets and other instruments, strutting, dancing, and letting anyone who can keep up join in. The bigger parades may not allow crowd participation, but find yourself a second line parade and you can join the festivities. You may also see flambeaux carriers creating their own spectacle, twirling and dancing their way along with parades at night.
  • All out partying and revelry:
    Yup. Though you probably don’t think of Mardi Gras without thinking New Orleans, they aren’t the only ones in the celebrating. Lafayette and Lake Charles, Louisiana hold 2-week long Mardi Gras festivals complete with parades, parties, and costumes. During that time, Lake Charles also does it up right with their World Famous Cajun Extravaganza and Gumbo Cook Off. Mardi Gras has been declared an official holiday in the state of Louisiana.

Mobile, Alabama

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has claim to the oldest carnival celebrations 1703 with its own Carnival Museum that shares their history with Mardi Gras. Meanwhile, St. Louis says that they have the second biggest Mardi Gras celebration in the country, beat out only by New Orleans. Restaurants serve New Orleans style cuisine while the partying goes on with parades and balls. Orlando, Florida’s Universal Studies throws a mega-party that lasts 50 nights, complete with a parade each night and massive concerts. San Diego boasts the biggest Mardi Gras celebration on the West Coast complete with over-the-top floats and huge masquerade parades.

The Mardi Gras Celebrations Heard Round the World

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  • United States
    – isn’t the only country that carries the Mardi Gras torch, many other countries hold festivities as well. Most famous is probably Rio De Janeiro’s wild Carnevale spectaculars that attract 2 million revelers to its annual blow-out. The revelry is so epic that it can be heard all the way across the Rio during peak party times.
  • Venice, Italy
    – has been in on the Carnevale action since the 12 th century, bringing 3 million revelers into the city each year. Locals wear traditional masks creatively made out of just about any material they can think of with masqueraders competing in front of judges for who wore it best.
  • French Quebec
    – carries on the tradition through their Winter Carnival, complete with fun arctic activities like icy canoe racing on the St. Lawrence River, gigantic snow sculptures, and the blasting of the red trumpet.
  • Copenhagen Denmark
    – is new to the Mardi Gras game, starting their tradition in 1982. They include traditional elements of Mardi Gras but also celebrate with one of the largest music festivals in the world. Various stages are set up throughout the city to hold the 120 bands that play and thousands of dancers that entertain the 100,000 + attendees.
  • Nice, France
    – is very nice that time of year, incorporating tradition flower parades covered in beautiful petals and paraders who wear matching colors. The parades often have elaborate and pretty unique themes, rolling on through the city day and night.
  • Canary Islands
    – love their Carnival Queen, holding a Grand Carnival Queen contest where all the young ladies wear humungous and completely spectacular customs and headdresses (some weighing more than 50 pounds!).
  • Trinidad and Tobago
    – throw highly energetic celebrations that not only include traditional brightly colored costumes but they also include exciting stick fights and fierce limbo competitions.

Well, when is Mardi Gras?

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Since it’s always the Tuesday before Lent, the date varies. In 2019 it will be held on March 5 th . If you are planning for the future, 2020’s celebrations culminate on Tuesday, February 25, and in 2021 you’ll want to make plans for February 16 th . Mardi Gras is full of religious and historical significance and high-spirited revelry. Bright colors, grandiose costumes, dancing, parades, and all-out partying are the hallmarks of Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans and around the world. If you want to find out some of the best ways to celebrate, check out our blog to see how you can party with the best of em’.

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