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Mardi Gras, a Slice of Traditionalism

Mardi Gras, a Slice of Traditionalism

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA - February 9, 2013: An ornately decorated float belonging to the Krewe of Endymion passes through a crowd on Canal Street during Mardi Gras.
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Mardi Gras is a world-famous celebration, one of the world’s great parties, and the year’s highlight in New Orleans. About 1.4 million visitors come to the city for the annual Fat Tuesday extravaganza, choc full of parades, picnics, music, and dazzling costumes. There’s no better place to experience the glitz and excitement of Mardi Gras.

Digging a little deeper we discover it’s a globally observed Catholic feast day with deep roots and a wealth of customs. Although many Americans immediately think of krewes and King Cake when someone mentions Mardi Gras, there’s a lot more to it than that. The words Mardi Gras are French and mean Tuesday (Mardi) and Fat (Gras); the day is known as ‘Fat Tuesday.’ to some people. The custom of gorging oneself on fatty foods such as beef, eggs, milk, and cheese the day before Ash Wednesday also gave rise to the term ‘French Feast’ to describe this day.


The Roots

The celebration of a festival known as Lupercalia, hailing the approach of spring, dates to ancient times. Lupercalia was “a frenzied trait of merrymaking conducted in February in Rome, after which attendees fasted for 40 days.”

The tradition of Mardi Gras as a Christian festival originated in Europe before spreading to the rest of the world. In the late 17th century, French colonists transported the custom to the southern states, notably Alabama and Louisiana. In 1699, the Le Moyne brothers, French-Canadian voyageurs, founded a settlement around 60 miles south of New Orleans. The day was Fat Tuesday, and to honor the holy day, they threw an impromptu party and named the site Pointe du Mardi Gras.

The earliest known planned celebration of Mardi Gras in the United States took place in the tiny hamlet of Mobile in 1703. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville established the first permanent settlement in New Orleans in 1718, and Mardi Gras quickly took root. As early as the 1740s, New Orleans began hosting the fabulous Mardi Gras balls for which the city is famous.

There are references to the much-loved holiday in classic literature. An early Mardi Gras Carnival event is detailed in an incident of The Count of Monte Cristo by Victor Hugo. This early celebration of Fat Tuesday was known by its short name, ‘Carnival,’ and took place annually in Rome. It began far before Fat Tuesday and continued for several weeks, immediately followed by Lent. On the other hand, this Carnival celebration differed considerably from Mardi Gras. Instead of beginning the day with a MoonPie or drinks pre-parade drinks, the Count, Franz, and Albert watch a public execution before breakfast! Thankfully, not all customs passed down the generations have survived.

The classic work A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is perhaps better known for its Carnival allusions. It’s generally agreed that it’s the best fictional work set in New Orleans. It makes you feel as if you’re in the French Quarter and (most importantly) during Mardi Gras! A Confederacy of Dunces provides a wealth of information on the history and tradition of Mardi Gras celebrations in the South, from its colorful characters to its authentic portrayal of Louisiana accents and vivid descriptions of the infamous Bourbon Street.

The main character, Ignatius Reilly, is memorialized as a statue in New Orleans, where it may be seen in front of the D.H. Holmes department store. It is relocated once a year—during Mardi Gras—so that it will not be damaged by the large number of people coming for the festivities. Reilly seems to represent Mardi Gras throughout the year until next year’s festival kicks off.

It’s interesting to note that books have always been a popular choice as a theme for Mardi Gras parade floats. The Krewe of Comus parade in 1914 included figures from Chaucer, and the Krewe of Barkus march in 2005, inspired by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Bone, are two examples of famous Mardi Gras krewes that were inspired by works of literature. Between 1870 and 1930, known as the carnival’s ‘Golden Age,’ was characterized by extravagant parades based on popular literary themes. Even today, it’s not uncommon for parade krewes to take their inspiration from writers.


Can’t Stop the Party

On March 3, 1699, the French-Canadian explorers and brothers Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville and Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville made camp on a tributary of the Mississippi. They named the site Pointe du Mardi Gras after celebrating Fat Tuesday. They also founded what is now Mobile, Alabama, in 1702.

The French began building the city of New Orleans in 1718, about 60 miles upriver from the brothers’ camp. By the 1730s, the festivities of Mardi Gras, which included parades, sumptuous banquets, and exotic masquerade balls, were an annual institution in the city. The celebration of Mardi Gras persisted in New Orleans until 1762 when the Spanish conquered the city and made it illegal to participate in Mardi Gras’ decadence and debaucheries. The law remained in place until 1812, when Louisiana legally entered the United States federal system.

In 1827, an assembly of teen youth dressed in flamboyant regalia celebrated Mardi Gras by dancing around the streets of New Orleans. They wanted to recreate the wild celebrations they’d experienced in Paris during Mardi Gras. A decade later, in 1837, the city of New Orleans had its first documented Mardi Gras parade, and the carnival has been going from strength to strength ever since. Mardi Gras is celebrated in other cities along the Gulf Coast and even in St Louis, but Louisiana is the only state in the United States where Mardi Gras is a state holiday.

As the celebration evolved, large groups of costumed partygoers took to the streets with flaming torches, dragging carriages, and riding horses. In 1856, the first Mardi Gras krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was established. They hosted the following year’s parade in 1857, complete with marching bands, rolling floats, and a ball. In 1870, a second krewe emerged; the Twelfth Night Revelers began the custom of throwing trinkets to the crowd. This tradition continues today with strings of beads, doubloons, and stuffed animals being tossed to the public. Other krewes were formed, and the krewes have been an essential element of Mardi Gras ever since.


The Russian Connection

In 1872, local businesspeople organized the first Mardi Gras procession in daylight to provide entertainment for the Grand Duke of Russia. The Grand Duke arrived in New Orleans for a visit, and according to some reports, he was accompanied by General Custer.

When the Grand Duke came to New Orleans, he brought the Romanovs’ imperial colors. The Grand Duke’s aides distributed beads in shades of green, gold, and purple to guests who attended the reception in his honor.  Green, gold, and purple would become synonymous with Mardi Gras when to celebrate the Grand Duke’s visit, the Krewe of Rex dressed in the colors of the emperors of Russia. They continue to be closely associated with Mardi Gras today, and each color has significance: green represents faith, gold represents strength, and purple represents justice.


Fit for a King

A special dessert known as the King Cake is often prepared for Mardi Gras. The history of the cake goes back to Medieval times when people in European countries celebrated the 12th day of Christmas by exchanging sweets and presents. In the bible, the Magi follow a star to visit the newborn baby Jesus, carrying with them gifts and confections. The cake was named in homage to this story.

In modern times, King Cakes have evolved into doughy, fried, and frosted sweets created in the traditional colors of Mardi Gras. Braided in a circular pattern to resemble a crown, they are baked with a baby figure hidden within.  Tradition decrees that whoever is served the slice with the baby receives luck and prosperity for the coming year, along with the responsibility of providing next year’s cake.


Krewes and Throws

Over seventy secret organizations, known as krewes, participate in the festivities. The krewes build floats, choosing a different theme each year. Come parade day; they wheel them around the streets in celebration. The better-connected krewes sometimes enlist the help of celebrities to entertain the crowd.

Throws, or party favors, are traditionally distributed by each float to the spectators. The Krewe of Zulu throws coconuts, while the Krewe of Rex throws gold coins. In between are a variety of throws from the other krewes. Almost everyone also throws beads of various colors. It is considered an honor to receive a throw, and the customary manner to request one is to yell, ‘Throw me something, gentleman.’ Remember to bring a large bag to carry away the knickknacks and treasures you may be offered.

During Mardi Gras, New Orleans barely sleeps. Even after late, late nights, it’s not unusual to see a procession make its way through a neighborhood the following morning when the rest of the world is in office meetings.

Whether you celebrate Mardi Gras in preparation for the abstinence of Lent or to cut loose and enjoy a secular party, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is unsurpassed by any other in the United States. What started as an improvised shindig on a riverbank now draws revelers from all over the world.



Edited by Michael Moss






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