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What is Mardi Gras?

By S. N. Smith
Updated May 16, 2024
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Mardi Gras, which is French for "Fat Tuesday," is an annual celebration that takes place before Lent. Also called Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, is usually the last day of Carnival, a week- to month-long celebration in Christian, mostly Roman Catholic, tradition. Mardi Gras is a presented as a great festival, a boisterous carne vale--or "good-bye to the flesh"--that serves as the last sowing of wild oats before the onset of the sober season of Lent heralded by Ash Wednesday.

There are many places that are famous for their Mardi Gras celebrations, including New Orleans, Louisiana; Mobile, Alabama; and Galveston, Texas--in the United States--and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Venice, Italy; and Mazatlan, Mexico--internationally. Essentially, the celebration of Mardi Gras has much to do with satiating appetites before the Lenten season of penitence and self-denial, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter. Yet another name for Mardi Gras is "Pancake Tuesday," which is a reference to the custom of feasting on pancakes and finishing up all the eggs and dairy products often prohibited during the Lenten fast.

Although Mardi Gras and Carnival customs around the world differ, there are some elements that are shared by nearly all: music; bold, colorful costumes and/or masks; and unabashed merrymaking. The festivities are magnets for tourists from all over the world.

Perhaps the most famous Mardi Gras celebration in the United States is that of New Orleans, Lousiana. Although no historical confirmation exists of exactly when the first Mardi Gras was celebrated in New Orleans, it is believed that early French Settlers brought the custom with them to Louisiana. Popular legend awards the honor of transplanting Mardi Gras to the New World to a French explorer who arrived at the Mississippi River in 1699 and named his place of landing Point du Mardi Gras, after the holiday celebrated that day in his homeland. Eighteenth-century documents refer to well-established pre-Lenten traditions such as masked balls.

Beginning about two weeks before Fat Tuesday, parades organized by groups or clubs called krewes start to move through the streets of New Orleans and surrounding communities. Krewe members generally pay membership fees, or dues, which are used to fund the construction of their parade floats and the costumes they wear. Some krewes have a long historical tradition. The Mistick Krewe of Comus held its first parade in 1857 and still holds a ball each Mardi Gras eve. Major krewes such as the Krewe of Endymion and the Krewe of Tucks often have their own parade routes.

The bigger and more renowned krewes hold their parades closer to Fat Tuesday. Over the years, parades have featured celebrities such as Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye, and attract great crowds of onlookers, who gather to vie for the "throws" cast by the krewe members riding the floats. Popular throws are strings of colored plastic beads, small and inexpensive toys, and plastic or aluminum "doubloons." Jazz bands, walking clubs, and smaller parades promenade around the city. The major parades avoid the Quarter because of the logistics problems presented by its narrow streets.

The traditional colors of Mardi Gras are purple for "justice," green for "faith," and gold for "power." These colors are evident everywhere during Mardi Gras and the preceding weeks--from the clothing of the revelers to the food to the tokens that are thrown from the parade floats. The King Cake, a popular Mardi Gras staple, is decorated in sugar that is dyed in these colors. The King Cake is a coffee cake baked in a ring shape and glazed with a simple sugar icing, then sprinkled with gold, purple, and green colored sugar. Inside the King Cake, the baker has hidden a small plastic baby, symbolizing the Christ Child. Whoever finds the baby in his or her slice of King Cake is said to be able to expect good luck in the coming year--and is expected to host the next King Cake party.

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Discussion Comments

By heath925 — On Mar 19, 2011

I love that Mardi Gras is such a historic tradition. I love traditions and I think it is great when something can continue on for hundreds of years.

It's thrilling to think that people hundreds of years ago were celebrating in the same way we do today!

By calpat — On Mar 17, 2011

Mardi Gras sounds like a fun celebration. I've never actually been to one of the festivals, but I have heard a lot about them. It sounds like they get pretty crazy sometimes though. Maybe a little too crazy for me!

By loni — On Mar 08, 2009

Why is Mardi Gras celebrated and how did it start?

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