If you participate in the rituals of Christianity and Mardi Gras, then we’re sorry to say that this is your last day to eat in excess before the fasting begins. So eat well and stuff your face with plenty of King Cake! And even if you don’t participate in the rituals, chances are you’re planning on hitting a Mardi Gras party to see some boobs (no judgments), throw some beads, get drunk, and watch elaborate floats pass by. And if you’re celebrating in New Orleans- then be prepared for an even wilder ride! Regardless of where you’re celebrating, Mardi Gras is one helluva time. Even house parties can get seven kinds of wild!
But have you ever stopped to actually think about why we celebrate Mardi Gras? Why the elaborate floats, topless women, beads, drinks, and colors? To be honest, we hadn’t really thought about it either until today. We’ve always just enjoyed the holiday and regretted going to work the next morning. However, this year was different; we wanted to know more about the inner workings of the global party. So if you’re curious like us, read ahead to learn all about Mardi Gras!
What is Mardi Gras?
For the general population, Mardi Gras is a worldwide celebration that involves elaborate floats, delicious foods, crazy parties, and of course a ton of alcohol, naked women, and beads. However, it’s a bit deeper than it appears on the surface and there is a reason for the excess.
Mardi Gras, which translates to “Fat Tuesday” from French to English, is also referred to as Shrove Tuesday. Shrove means “absolution of one’s sins by way of penance and Confession”. In other words, it’s a means of Christian purification from one’s over indulgences. And it always takes place the day before Ash Wednesday (which happens to be tomorrow at the time of this article). And for those out of the loop, Ash Wednesday is the start of the Christian Lent season that runs all the way through Easter.
So starting tomorrow, many Christians will begin fasting. However, fasting varies from person to person and religion to religion, but it all pretty much involves the same thing: abstaining from eating in bulk and avoiding certain foods such as meat. Lent can also involve giving up things such as soda, sex, or other guilty vices that the person chooses to live without for the duration of Lent. Again, this is a purification process.
So in other words, Mardi Gras is a last meal before death row; an elaborate celebration to prepare yourself from the coming fasting season. And what better way to abstain from debauchery and foods than to immerse yourself deep within all of it before having to give it up in the morning?
What is Carnival?
Mardi Gras also marks the conclusion of Carnival and the end of the parades that began in January.
But what exactly is Carnival? Well, it’s the name given to Western Christian as well as Greek Orthodox festival seasons. These take place before the beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday) and typically run around February and early March. This time is also referred to as Shrovetide or Pre-Lent. However, most of us know it as Carnival season.
Carnival involves a lot of public celebrations and you can expect parades, Brazilian styled dancers, street parties open to the public, performances, and a variety of other festivities that are similar the elements of a circus. You can expect to see a number of shows ranging from fire eating to even sword swallowing. Almost everyone will also be all decked out so to speak in costumes, masks, and bright colors.
Elaborate masks and costumes give people a chance to cast aside who they are everyday and don a “new face”. These elements also bring people closer together and inspire a sense of social unity since everyone is decorating themselves as well. Even those who opt out of the masks and costumes can be found in bright Mardi Gras colors and covered in beads, making themselves just as much a part of the festivities as others.
And as we mentioned earlier, Carnival is a time to indulge in all of your favorite things: alcohol, meats, and other foods that you will give up for Lent.
Where is it celebrated?
When people hear the words “Mardi Gras” they immediately think of New Orleans. When you hear the word “Carnival”, you might also think of New Orleans, but typically Brazil comes to mind. So are these the only places that celebrate Mardi Gras? Nope! The whole world celebrates this holiday.
In America, New Orleans is definitely the most well known Mardi Gras celebration. Here, it marks the end of their parade season that has been running since January. The biggest, brightest, and best floats are saved for Mardi Gras as well as the best performances. So if you don’t have time to catch all of Carnival and the parade season, make sure you visit on Fat Tuesday. This is also when people get the wildest. The best is definitely saved for last!
Southern cities, particularly those with a French heritage such as Alabama’s beautiful Mobile, celebrate Mardi Gras in style. They too have hosted a number of parades, floats, performances, and wickedly cool parties. However, Mardi Gras isn’t limited to the south or those with French roots. Cities all around the world celebrate Mardi Gras. While you probably won’t see floats or performances on any other day other than Fat Tuesday, you can still partake in the festivities. Many cities, such as Galveston, Texas, host their own Mardi Gras parties where people can gather for drinks, floats, and a genuinely good time. And no- you don’t have to be religious to enjoy the celebration!
Carnival is also celebrated in many countries where the primary religion is Catholicism. And of course, Brazil who’s easily the most well known. Brazil is synonymous with Carnival and is well known for putting on gorgeous street shows with talented dancers, bringing stunning floats down the roads, and providing tons of insane performances for the duration of Carnival.
Mardi Gras’s roots
As hinted above, Mardi Gras is much older than many of us realized. And despite popular belief, it didn’t originate in New Orleans.
Its origins can actually be traced as far back as medieval Europe and there is evidence of Mardi Gras in Rome and Venice dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries at the French House of the Bourbons. It was referred to as “Boeuf Gras” or fattened calf, and the traditions made their way to France and her colonies.
Flashback to March 2, 1699: a French-Canadian explorer by the name of Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville (yes, that’s his name and yes, we also feel sorry for him) arrived in a small town 60 miles south of New Orleans. He called the area “Pointe du Mardi Gras” after realizing that the town was celebrating the holiday. He also went on to name the town of Fort Louis de la Louisiane, which is now modern day Mobile in 1702. In 1703, Fort Louis de Louisiane held America’s first Mardi Gras and a tradition was born.
In 1704, a secret society called Masque de la Mobile began in Mobile, Alabama. It was similar in nature to modern day Mardi Gras krewes (the organizations responsible for putting on the parades and balls for Carnival season). They lasted until 1709. In 1710, the “Boeuf Gras Society” picked up the mantle and held parades from 1711 to 1861. The processions began with a large bull’s head being pushed through the streets on wheels. The heavy bull’s head required 16 men to push it, despite the fact that it was wheels. Later, an actual bull dressed in white would make its way through the streets, signaling the beginning of the Lenten fast. This happened on Fat Tuesday.
In 1718, New Orleans was established by Bienville and in the 1730s, Mardi Gras made its way to the vibrant city. However, it wasn’t the Mardi Gras that we’re familiar with today. Instead of topless women and people drinking themselves into a stupor in the streets, elegant balls were held for high society members in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. These balls have since inspired the city, who continues to host elaborate balls in an effort to pay respects to its heritage.
Why those specific colors?
When we first started our journey down the road to learning all about Mardi Gras, we had one burning question: why those specific colors? Well, if that’s been the question at the front of your mind since this article started, then let us answer it for you.
Mardigrasneworleans.com reports that the colors were chosen by Rex in 1872. And later in 1892, the Rex Parade theme Symbolism of Colors gave meaning to each one picked.
Purple– this color represents justice. Some argue that it’s meant to represent royalty, but according to the website it’s actually justice.
Green- green was chosen to represent faith. And given the fact that this holiday has religious affiliations, it makes sense that faith would part of the color palette.
Gold- gold was chosen by Rex to represent power. Which given the striking color makes perfect sense.
These colors went on to influence the school colors of Louisiana State University and Tulane University. The two universities had spent some time trying to come up with school colors. However, it would be Mardi Gras season that would actually determine what colors the schools ended up with.
Unfortunately for TSU, when the shops in New Orleans were busy stocking up on materials for their Mardi Gras season, LSU had already decided on the purple and gold. They bought the bulk of the material, leaving Tulane stuck with green. The school also chose a beautiful sky blue as their other color, but we can’t help but wonder how bitter they were towards LSU for scooping up all of the materials.
King Cake: a Mardi Gras staple
King’s Cake started out as a very dry dough dusted with sugar and a bean instead of a baby inside nearly 300 years ago. Since this, the dessert has evolved but only slightly. It’s still a brioche style dessert but it’s has sense been decorated with cinnamon and then glazed with icing or sugar in the traditional Mardi Gras colors. And instead of the bean, there’s now a plastic baby inside.
If you find the baby in your slice, it doesn’t only mean good fortune, it also means that you’re responsible for hosting next year’s Mardi Gras or buying the cake. So choose your slice carefully if you’re not one who enjoys commitments!
For other countries, King’s Cake is a little bit different. The one pictured above is a Louisiana-style cake. For some, the King’s Cake consists of a puff pastry with a number of flavor fillings such as chocolate, strawberry, and apple. Inside, you’ll find a feve or a small figurine hidden. This figure varies from bakery to bakery, but the meaning is the same: you’ll be asked to host the next party or buy the next cake.
Oh, and don’t even think about reaching for leftover slices the day after Mardi Gras; not only is this against lent, but it’s considered a faux pas to eat King’s Cake after the celebration has ended.
Who pays for Mardi Gras and organizes the celebration?
Now you might be rolling your eyes and thinking to yourself, “the city pays for it and plans it, duh” and you’d be wrong. The only thing the city does according to Mardi Gras New Orleans, is to issue parade permits to those involved.
So who funds and plans the party then? The answer is Krewes. Krewes are non-profit organizations that are often private in nature. Their members get together throughout the year in order to plan the event’s theme, throws, and costumes. They fund the party through member dues, Krewes related merchandise, fundraising, and sometimes even corporate sponsorships.
In other words, it’s mostly funded out of the organization’s pocket so remember that next time you visit Mardi Gras! This elaborate celebration is all thanks to the collaboration of a few groups.
Are you celebrating?
We’d like to know if you’re planning on celebrating Mardi Gras or if you did so already over the weekend. And if you are planning on celebrating, are you going to a street party or something a little low key? Are you going to fast after the festival’s end? Let us know in the comment section!