Mardi Gras, Carnival, Fat Tuesday, whatever you want to call it, it’s a big event here in Louisiana. Growing up Catholic I knew Mardi Gras was the day before Lent officially begins. In other words, it’s a day to go hog-wild before the 47 days of denial and soberness of Lent. I had no idea Mardi Gras season officially starts the day after Epiphany (the 12th day of Christmas) and culminates in Fat Tuesday.
In the United States, historians believe that the first Mardi Gras occurred on March 3, 1699 when French explorers landed in what is now Louisiana1. In years to come settlers celebrated the holiday with parties and balls, which Spanish control abolished when it took over New Orleans. Americans reinstated the revelries in 1812, when Louisiana became a U.S. State1.
In 1857, the Mistick Krewe of Comus (a secret society of New Orleans business men) organized the first recorded parade1. Elements of this parade are still seen today—torches, marching bands and floats. Today, there are dozens of Krewes, each hosting a parade that rolls anytime in the season. This year, parades started February 4 and ended on February 21. In each parade, those on the floats wear masks covering their hair and faces, yet another old tradition. Back in the beginnings of the parades the wealthy wanted to keep their involvement a secret and wore masks to remain anonymous.
Another old Mardi Gras tradition is the King Cake3. I’d heard of King Cake before—in context of the 12 Days of Christmas—but never understood why King Cake was also associated with Mardi Gras. Until, of course, I realized that Mardi Gras officially begins on January 6, or the Twelfth Night of Christmas. The King Cake is baked in honor of the three kings. Inside each cake is a little baby, and who ever finds the baby gets good luck for the next year. Today’s bakers top their King Cakes with sugar in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold.
Unlike the rest of the Mardi Gras traditions, beads are relatively new2, although they are now synonymous with Mardi Gras. The throwing of beads did not come about until sometime in the 1920s when the Krewe of Rex parade threw inexpensive necklaces to the crowds2. Today’s krewes spend anywhere between $800 and $2,000 on beads and must have orders in by September2! The other Mardi Gras bead “tradition,” or flashing for beads, is also relatively new and only occurs in the French Quarter. The rest of the parades are relatively family friendly (if you ignore the rampant alcohol consumption).
While most Americans think associate New Orleans with Mardi Gras, other southern cities host their own celebrations. Brazil and Venice also host famous Carnival (Brazil) or Carnevale (Venice). Each celebration has its own distinctive, and historic flair, but each centers on the Roman Catholic tradition.