What is Mardi Gras?

Knights of Revelry parade down Royal Street in Mobile during the 2010 Mardi Gras season.

Mardi Gras has evolved from a Medieval celebration into a worldwide Carnival. The most famous Mardi Gras celebration in North America has always been in New Orleans.

The term “Mardi Gras” is synonymous with New Orleans in the U.S. In spite of Hurricane Katrina, it is still upholding the tradition of celebration. But where did that tradition start?

History of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras can be traced back to the Romans in Medieval Europe. They observed the Lupercalia, a circus-type festival which was quite similar to the present day Mardi Gras. This festival honored the Roman deity, Lupercus, a pastoral God.

History shows that King Louis XIV sent a pair of French Explorers, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville and Sieur d’Iberville to defend France’s claim on the territory of Louisianne in 1699. Their landing ended up 60 miles downstream from current day New Orleans, and d’IBerville named it, “Point du Mardi Gras (French: “Mardi Gras Point”). He went on to colonize the territory of Mobile, Alabama in 1702 and New Orleans in 1718.

Mardi Gras Timeline

  • 1703 – Mardi Gras tradition began as the settlers celebrated on the banks of the Mississippi River.
  • 1730 – Mardi Gras celebrated openly in New Orleans
  • 1781 – “Celebration” added to Mardi Gras
  • Late 1830’s – Processions of carriages and costumed maskers paraded through the streets.
  • 1872 – Businessmen introduced the King of Carnival and the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold.
  • 1875 – Mardi Gras was declared an official holiday in New Orleans by Governor Warmoth, as it remains today.

When is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras falls between February 3rd and March 9th. Carnival celebration officially starts on January 6th which is the “Twelfth Night” and ends midnight the day before Ash Wednesday, known as “Fat Tuesday”, (literal translation of the French term Mardi Gras). The purpose of Mardi Gras was to get the partying out so lent could begin!

U.S. Mardi Gras Traditions

  • Parades are held in New Orleans with lavishly decorated floats routed down Charles Avenue and Canal Street.
  • Simultaneous partying takes place on Bourbon Street where beads are thrown to participants in recognition for their costumes and sometimes outrageous behavior. The beads were made of glass until the 1980’s when they were replaced with plastic due to glass breakage.
  • Costumes are worn in the Mardi Gras colors. The colors were chosen by King Rex and each color has a significance: Purple for Justice, Green for Faith, and Gold for Power
  • Masks are worn adorned with feathers, sequins and glitter

Mardi Gras King Cake

During Mardi Gras parties, pieces of “King Cake” are served. It is similar to a cinnamon roll, usually made of a rich, Danish dough, topped with sugary icing in traditional Mardi Gras colors. It is believed to have been first made around 1870 following a Twelfth Century France custom, when a cake was made in honor of the three Kings who visited the child Jesus. Hidden inside is a trinket (sometimes a baby) that represents good luck and designates who throws the party the next year!

Mardi Gras – Not Just a New Orleans Celebration

In the U.S., Mardi Gras Carnival is most popular in the Gulf Coast Region, New Orleans holding the most famous carnival in North America. However, Carnival is celebrated worldwide from Trinidad, Spain to Sydney, Australia. Rio de Janiero, Brazil, however is the reigning King of Carnival in the world. Rio de Janiero is known for its energetic Bacchanalian blowout that culminates in the Samba Dromo parades. However, Carnival Rio de Janiero has become dangerously chaotic over the years resulting in beefed up security for 2009.

Remember when you celebrate: Mardi Gras is not a spectator event. So, couch potatoes, stay home!