February 16, 2024 | Kaddy Gibson

The Bizarre Origins Of Mardi Gras


The Bizarre Origins Of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras is the ultimate celebration, world-famous for the wild parades and extravagant costumes that are key to this festival. 

But how much do you actually know about the world’s greatest party?

mardi gras

What Is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras is the last celebration of Carnival, which is a festival before the Christian fasting season called Lent. 

Lent is a solemn time and represent the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent in the desert. Mardi Gras is the last big celebration before people engage in more somber traditions for Lent.

Princess Tiana's Mardi Gras Celebration - 2012Loren Javier, Flickr

Fat Tuesday

In French, Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday”. That name refers to all the meat and fatty food people eat that night before they start fasting.

Person taking roasted chicken from a pan.Fatih Workz, Pexels

Shrove Tuesday

In medieval times, Mardi Gras was called Shrove Tuesday. 

In those days, “to shrive” meant to confess, and people used this day to atone for their sins before Lent. “Shrove” was the past tense of shrive.

Mardi Gras Day, Canal Street, New Orleans - 1919Photo by John T Mendes via [1], Picryl

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Pancake Day

In some part of the world, like the UK, Ireland, and Australia, Mardi Gras is called Pancake Day. 

In the early days of the Catholic Church, during Lent, people were forbidden from eating foods that came from “flesh,” which included dairy, fat, and eggs.  

So they would make pancakes to use up the last of those prohibited ingredients before Lent.

Pancake Tuesday, also called Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. - 2019LexnGer, Flickr

Party Time

The length of a Mardi Gras celebration differs based on where you are in the world. Some Mardi Gras are only held on the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. 

Others last for the entire three-day period before Lent.

Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans - 2009Infrogmation of New Orleans, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Mardi Gras Krewes

The Mardi Gras floats in New Orleans are run by groups called “krewes”. 

Each krewe has their own distinct theme, but they must also have a “royal court” that includes kings, queens, dukes, and duchesses.

Mardi Gras Parade In Florida - 2010Happy Mermaid, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Rex Krewe

The Rex krewe is one of the most famous krewes. This all-male group has been hosting Mardi Gras parties since 1872. 

The royal colors of the Rex king—purple, green, and gold—have become tradition for the entire Mardi Gras celebration.

Krewe of Rex Parade ,Mardi Gras - 2015mike connor, Flickr

The Zulu Krewe

The Zulu are another famous krewe. The all-black group was formed during the days of segregation, and though it has caused controversy in recent years, the blackface that is part of the Zulu’s costume is meant to pay homage to the Zulu warriors of South Africa. 

The Zulu krewe started the tradition of throwing gifts to the crowd, starting with gold walnuts.

Zulu Parade, New Orleans Mardi Gras - 2011Brad Coy, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The King Cake

The king cake is the most famous dish at Mardi Gras. The colorful, circular cake is baked with a tiny baby doll in the middle, which is said to represent baby Jesus. 

The person who gets the slice of cake with the baby in it gets to be king for the day.

King Cake of Mardi Gras - 2010syvwlch, Flickr

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America’s First Mardi Gras

New Orleans may be home to one of the world’s most famous Mardi Gras celebrations, but Mardi Gras in America began in Mobile, Alabama

Journals from a French explorer named Piere Le Moyne D’Iberville, suggest he practiced a mass on the day of Mardi Gras. Pierre founded Mobile in 1702.

Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans - 1867Library of Congress. Picryl

The First Mardi Gras In New Orleans

New Orleans’ first recorded Mardi Gras took place in 1833, but floats were not included in the parade until two decades later. 

The ball themes and tableaus that are popular in the New Orleans Mardi Gras became traditions across the country and have made the city renowned for its celebration.

New Orleans Mardi Gras: Parade on Royal Street - 1887Where Y'At- Magazine ,Picryl

Harsh Critics

Mardi Gras wasn’t always a beloved celebration in New Orleans. The Spanish controlled the state from 1762 to 1800 and prohibited certain Mardi Gras traditions. 

When the United States took control in 1803, they also opposed Mardi Gras, and banned the masquerade balls and the wearing of masks in public.

New Orleans Charity Hospital School of Nursing Mardi Gras Dance - 1951Internet Archive, Picryl

Mardi Gras Beads

Every visitor gets iconic souvenirs from Mardi Gras: Beaded necklaces. 

Krewes started throwing beaded necklaces to crowds in the 1960s and it’s become one of Mardi Gras’ most well-known traditions.

Mardi Gras New Orleans ,woman wearing necklace - 2018Mobilus In Mobili, Flickr

Not So Eco-Friendy

Mardi Gras is a great party for us, but it doesn’t do much good for the environment. All the beads, decorations, and drink cups add up to a lot of trash. 

New Orleans estimates that it disposes of 2.5 million pounds of garbage from Mardi Gras each year.

Clean up crews work after Mardi Gras Season. - 2019Suzanne C. Grim, Shutterstock

Sustainability Efforts

Some people have taken to cleaning up the streets after the celebrations and there are small organizations that help organize trash collection during the parade. 

Some groups are even making beaded necklaces from biodegradable materials.

Mardi Gras Celebration - 2018Mobilus In Mobili ,Flickr

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Mardi Gras Masks

Costumes and masks are a key part of Mardi Gras. Every culture has their own version of Carnival masks, but one of the most recognizable are the Venetian masks

The use of these originated at the Carnival in Venice, which is said to have been inspired by a Roman festival called Saturnalia. 

During Saturnalia, people wore masks to help them be completely free in their revelry.

Person wearing venetian carnival mask.Helena Jankovičová Kováčová, Pexels

Mardi Gras Masks (cont’d)

While Venetian masks are the most-known, Mardi Gras masks come in all shapes and sizes. 

Some look like animals or creatures from myths, while others look more like clowns or medieval knights. Feathers and bright colors are typical decorations for Mardi Gras masks.

Woman at Mardi Gras Celebration - 2019philippe leroyer, Flickr

The Biggest Mari Gras Celebrations

The Mardi Gras in New Orleans is one of the most popular among tourists, but the festival is celebrated all over the world. 

Venice and Brazil also have carnival festivities that attract up to 3 million visitors each year.

Rio de Janeiro- Carnival - 2015Terry George, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

A Strange Tradition

Belgium has one of the most unique Mardi Gras traditions. During the parade, the performers throw oranges at the crowd.

This odd custom is also observed in the Italian town of Ivrea, which hosts an epic Battle of the Oranges each Mardi Gras.

Participants in the Binche Carnival in Binche, Belgium on February 28 2017.Kobby Dagan, Shutterstock

Ancient Origins

There is a popular belief that Mardi Gras was inspired by ancient Roman traditions to celebrate spring and fertility, like Saturnalia and Lupercalia. 

But many historians say the festivities originated with the Catholic Church. The Church wanted to discourage eating meat bedroom action during lent.

Mardi Gras Parade, New York City - 2017Janis Johnson, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Mistick Krewe Of Comus

The Mistick Krewe of Comus was the first Mardi Gras krewe in New Orleans. It’s said that they began as a secret society in the late 1850s. 

At the time, Mardi Gras was losing popularity. The Mistick Krewe of Comus changed all that by hosting a grand ball and introducing floats to the parade.

The Mistick Krewe - Harpers - New Orleans Mardi Gras 1873Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

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More Krewes Are Made

Other secret societies took after the Mistick Krewe of Comus and came up with their own krewes. At the time, secret societies were exclusive to the demographics they served, and there are still all-male, all-female, and all-Black krewes today. 

There are also many interracial and co-ed krewes, and each has their own distinct float during the parade.

Mardi Gras Day on St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans - 2013thepipe26, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Krewe Themes

The krewes decorate their floats and make their costumes according to a theme, which changes every year. Many krewes start working on their floats for the following year right after Mardi Gras ends.

Tiana's Mardi Gras Celebration: Princess Tiana and Mardi Gras Dancers - 2010Carlos, Flickr

Colorful Meanings

In 1982, twenty years after they made green, gold, and purple traditional colors at New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, the Krewe of Rex gave the colors a deeper meaning

Since then, green has represented faith, gold represents power, and purple represents justice.

Mardi Gras Celebration , Rex - 2013enigmaarts, Flickr

Where To Watch Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras is a popular festival for New Orleans locals and tourists alike. While it is one big party, certain parts of the celebration are far less PG than others. 

If you’re looking to make your Mardi Gras more family-friendly, stay uptown during the parade. If you don’t mind a little skin, head over to the French Quarter.

Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans: Watching the Rex parade - 2015mike connor, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Legal Requirements

Masks are more than a tradition at New Orleans’ Mardi Gras; they’re also required by law. Everybody on a float has to either wear a mask or have their face painted. 

This is said to have originally been a way to encourage people to interact with those outside their social circle, with their true identities hidden.

Mardi Gras Parade, New Orleans, LouisianaLibrary of Congress, Picryl

Gimme More

Krewes throw beads throughout the parade, but if you want them to throw something right to you, you’ve got to say the magic words: “Throw me something, mister!”

Mardi Gras 2010 In Pensacola, FloridaHappy Mermaid, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Members Only

Many krewes are strict about who they let into their ranks, so it’s really hard to get a spot on one of the floats. 

That’s because they pay hefty membership fees and spend a lot on costumes, beads, and everything for their float. 

If you know someone on a krewe and they take a break, you might be able to take their place, but you’ll have to pay for it.

Asheville Mardi Gras - 2023anoldent, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Mardi Gras Balls

After the Mardi Gras parade, krewes hosts elaborate balls

Getting an invite to these exclusive parties is difficult, but New Orleans is full of great places for you to continue the celebration long into the night.

mardi gras ball - 2017Peter Clark, Flickr

Final Thoughts

While the origins of Mardi Gras may lie in religious traditions, the celebration has evolved into one of the world’s wildest festivals. Mardi Gras is celebrated in many cool cities around the world, so there are lots of opportunities to experience the fun for yourself. 

Mardi Gras Parade, 2006, New Orleans, LouisianaLibrary of Congress, Picryl


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