Mardi Gras History and More!
"The Meaning of Mardi Gras You Say"?
Gras" means "Fat Tuesday." Traditionally, it is the last day for
Christians to indulge—and often overindulge—before Ash Wednesday starts the
sober weeks of fasting that come with Lent Formally known as Shrove
Tuesday, Mardi Gras has long been a time of extravagant fun for European
Christians. In fact, some people think Mardi Gras celebrations have their source
in the wild springtime orgies of the ancient Romans!
In the United States, Mardi Gras draws millions of fun-seekers to New Orleans every year. Mardi Gras has been celebrated in New Orleans on a grand scale, with masked balls and colorful parades, since French settlers arrived in the early 1700s. Hidden behind masks, people behaved so raucously that for decades in the early 19th century masks were deemed illegal in that party-loving city.
Music, and Mayhem
royals, feather-covered showgirls, Energizer bunnies, painted clowns, masked
lions—you can find them all (and countless others) in the streets of New
Orleans at Mardi Gras. By dawn on that most famous Tuesday, people have claimed
the best spots on the streets to watch fabulous floats, outrageous performers,
and visiting celebrities go by. Many travel hundreds of miles to be a part of
pageants in the French Quarter, where bawdy costuming
may reach new heights (over seven feet, in heels).
Mardi Gras Dates: 2004 Feb. 24 2005 Feb. 8 Marching bands, some of them founded more than a century ago, also take to the streets with music and festive dress. They open the day by spreading jazz music through the city before the more than 350 floats and 15,000 costumed paraders take over the scene. Crazy costumes and wild make-up are the order of the day for paraders and parade-watchers alike. The most lavish get-ups can be seen at the cross-dressing beauty
pageants in the French Quarter, where bawdy costuming may reach new heights (over seven feet, in heels).
New Orleans Royalty
Gras has long combined wild street activities open to everyone with events
organized by private clubs known as krewes. Today, thousands of people belong to
about 60 krewes that plan the parades and balls of New Orleans' Mardi Gras. The
oldest krewe, the Krewe of Comus, was
founded in 1857 by men who feared the outrageous antics of Mardi Gras would lead
to the holiday being outlawed. They hoped that secret societies could keep the
In 1872 the Russian grand duke Alexis Romanoff visited New Orleans at Mardi Gras. A group of businessmen organized the Krewe of Rex to host a parade for the occasion, and appointed a "king for the day" so that the grand duke could have a royal reception. Naming kings and queens at Mardi Gras balls has been a tradition of the krewes ever since. Another tradition began with that royal visit: the Romanoff house colors—purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power—became the official colors of Mardi Gras.
as Catch Can
The millions of colorful beaded necklaces thrown from floats are the most
visible symbols and souvenirs of Mardi Gras. In addition, millions of cups and
toy coins known as "doubloons"
are decorated with krewe logos and thrown to parade-watchers. Some
"throws" are especially prized: only the luckiest folks manage to take
home the hand-decorated coconuts from the Krewe of Zulu.
People do outrageous things to catch the most throws. Some dress as priests, hoping the many Catholics on the floats will shower them with goodies. Others dress their children in eye-catching costumes and seat them, holding baskets to catch the loot, on ladders that tower over the crowds. Others give up on the costume ploy altogether, finding that taking clothes off can be the quickest attention-getter.
In 1857, a group called the Mystik Krewe of Comus (more about krewes later) staged the first modern-style Mardi Gras parade. The torchlit evening procession of floats illustrated themes from classical mythology and literature.
the American Civil War (1861 - 1865), many new krewes, or clubs, began
offering additional parades and balls. The Krewe of Rex, organized in
1872, pioneered many innovations that became trademarks of New Orleans Mardi
Gras. For example, Rex established the tradition of crowning a King of Carnival,
selected the carnival colors (purple for justice, green for faith and gold for
power), and adopted the song "If Ever I Cease to Love" as a Mardi Gras
occasional lapses caused by world wars, there has been an annual Mardi Gras
celebration, complete with parades (about 2,000 in the past two centuries) and
parties in New Orleans every year.
Mardi Gras is one of the world's greatest tourist attractions, drawing millions
from around the world for the days leading up to Fat Tuesday. Hotels in the
metro area (particularly in the historic French Quarter) and restaurants
(especially famous ones like The Commander's Palace and Emeril's)
are booked months -- and even years -- in advance. All the jazz, blues and
Dixieland bands in the state congregate in New Orleans to accompany the
festivities on street corners and at bars, hotels, parties and fancy masked
estimate that Mardi Gras generates more than half a billion dollars for the
local economy each year. Since no commercial or corporate sponsorships of Mardi
Gras parades are permitted, it is the carnival club members who put on the show
and foot the bill (Krewe members pay dues, ranging from $250 to $850). There is
no overall coordinator of Mardi Gras activities, and each krewe is completely
Mardi Gras festivities have become increasingly integrated since the 1960s, the
African American community of New Orleans has several distinctive carnival
customs. The largest African American krewe of Mardi Gras is the Zulu Social
Aid & Pleasure Club, Inc., which presents a show that is considered one
of the premier attractions of the Mardi Gras season. Another important African
American carnival tradition is the annual appearance of the Mardi Gras
Indians, groups of black men who dance through the streets in costumes
inspired by the traditional clothing of Native Americans.
newer tradition of Mardi Gras is the Phunny Phorty Phellows (PPP), a
group of about 50 costumed men and women who trumpet the official opening of the
carnival season on January 6 by riding a decorated streetcar along the St.
Charles Avenue line. Accompanied by a Dixieland band, the group snacks on King
Cakes and tosses favors to onlookers.
Is Mardi Gras celebrated outside New Orleans?
Not all Mardi Gras celebrations take place in urban areas. Distinctive Mardi
Gras traditions are also maintained by the Cajuns, an ethnic group that
derives its culture from French Canadian refugees who settled in southwestern
Louisiana during the 18th century. In rural Cajun communities, costumed revelers
on horseback ride from house to house begging for ingredients to make gumbo,
a thick, spicy soup. Other members of the community await the riders and make
preparations for a party. Around sunset, the riders make a dramatic entrance,
present the crowd with the gumbo ingredients they have gathered and join the
while the Louisiana parties reign supreme, Mobile, Alabama, has a lesser
known but equally old Mardi Gras tradition. Mardi Gras is informally observed in
some other North American cities, including San Francisco and New York, usually
with the same traditions featured in the New Orleans festivities.
Carnival tradition is celebrated around the world, as well. For information on
these festivals, including those in Brazil, Italy and Britain, check out the
links on the last page of this article
we go into more detail on what actually happens during Mardi Gras, let's take a
look the list of some of the most
important terms related to the big party in the "Big Easy":
(tableau ball) - This is a masked party featuring, as entertainment, the
performance of scenes representing a specific theme.
Gras - This is
the fatted bull or ox and symbolizes the last meat eaten before the Lenten
season of fasting (the "live" version presented in the Rex parade
was replaced in 1959 by a papier-mache version). The Boeuf Gras is one of
the most photographed sights at Mardi Gras.
- The leader of each Mardi Gras organization
- The king, queen, maids and dukes of a Mardi Gras organization
- These are aluminum, coin-like objects bearing the krewe's insignia on one
side and the parade's theme on the reverse. Doubloons were first introduced
in 1960 and created by New Orleans artist H. Alvin Sharpe. Doubloons are
also minted and sold in .999 silver, bronze and cloisonne.
- This is a personalized souvenir, given by organization members to friends
attending the ball.
Invitation - This is a non-transferable printed request for attendance at a Mardi Gras ball. Note: It is considered improper to call these "tickets."
Cake - This is
an oval, sugared cake with a plastic baby doll hidden inside. The person who
finds the doll is crowned "king" and buys the next colorful cake.
The King Cake season opens on King's Day, January 6. According to
Gras Guide" publisher Arthur Hardy, more than 750,000 King Cakes
are eaten each year in New Orleans during carnival season, and thousands
more are ordered from special bakeries and shipped to celebrants around the
country. (If you can't get to New Orleans, make
your own King Cakes with this recipe!)
- This is the generic term for all carnival organizations and clubs in New
Orleans. Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology are the sources for nearly half
the krewe names. Some clubs are named after the neighborhoods through which
they travel, while others are named after historical figures or places.
Clubs are chartered as non-profit entities and are financed by dues, by the
sale of krewe-emblemed merchandise to its members and by fund-raising
projects. Most Mardi Gras krewes are also involved in charity work.
Gras - This is
French for Fat Monday. From 1897 to 1917, the day before Mardi Gras was
celebrated by the arrival of King Rex aboard a steamboat. The custom was
revived in 1987.
- These are inexpensive souvenirs tossed from floats (since around 1871) by
costumed and masked krewe members in response to traditional calls of,
"Throw me something, mister!" These "throws" include
doubloons, plastic cups and necklaces
Proud residents who participate in the 70 or so parades leading up to Fat Tuesday claim that Mardi Gras parades boast the most imaginative themes, spectacular floats and outrageous costumes in the world. (If you can't get to New Orleans and you want to see for yourself, check out the live broadcasts at the official Mardi Gras site!
the 12-day period leading up to Mardi Gras, the parades are held in the
four-parish area of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard. Competition
for the best floats is friendly but fierce! Parades start each day at 8 a.m. and
continue until after sundown. Mardi Gras is officially over at the stroke of
midnight on Ash Wednesday.
some pre-season parades have become quite elaborate, local parish ordinances
dictate that the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade season officially begins on the
second Friday before Fat Tuesday.
Is there a theme for
There is no general theme for Mardi Gras, but each individual parade depicts a specific subject. The floats reflect the krewe's theme for that year, and masked members are costumed to illustrate the parade theme and the individual float title. Popular themes featured since 1857 have included historical events, children's stories, legends, geography, famous people, mythology and literature.
most spectacular parades occur during the last five days of the celebration.
This is when the larger parades (by clubs such as Orpheus, Bacchus, Zeus, Rex,
Zulu and Bards) wind their way through the streets.
than a dozen clubs build original floats each year. Since the floats are used
only once, these krewes have greater flexibility with the subject of their
parade (and often produce award winners!). Most other krewes select from a pool
of rental floats, and their themes tend to be generic in nature so that a float
entitled "The Sheep in the Meadow" in a parade with the theme of
"Little Bo Peep" might pop up a couple of days later leading another
parade called "Favorite Nursery Rhymes." Floats are serious business
though -- in Orleans Parish, a city ordinance prohibits the use of the same
float more than twice in the Central Business District during any given parade
super-krewes -- those featured in parades in the last three days before
Fat Tuesday -- might present a combined total of 110 floats, 90 marching bands
and more than 350 units. Their collective 3,500 members toss more that 2 million
cups, 3.5 million doubloons and 350,000 beads. They also invite guest
celebrities to ride in their parades -- stars such as Bob Hope, Dolly Parton,
John Goodman, Kirk Douglas, Harry Connick, Jr. and the Beach Boys.
all parades follow a standard format: The captain, or krewe leader, appears at
the head of the procession, either on a special float, in a convertible
or on horseback. Next come the officers, the king or queen, and, in some
parades, the maids and dukes, followed by the title float and the floats that
carry riding members.
method of selecting Mardi Gras royalty varies from krewe to krewe. King of
Carnival is chosen by the inner circle of the School of Design, the
sponsoring organization for the all-important Rex parade. Some krewes hold
random drawings to choose their king or queen, and most clubs charge the
selected monarch a fee for the honor!
Throw me something,
The most unique aspect of the Mardi Gras parade is related to its participatory nature. Normally intelligent, mature people have sheepishly admitted to becoming competitive -- and almost addicted -- to collecting the most throws from strategic positions along the streets
stuff their bags -- brought for this purpose -- with doubloons, cups, beads and
medallions (club-embossed items are considered collectibles). Parades often
become R-rated as onlookers go to extreme measures to get the attention
of krewe members tossing favors from floats. (More later about making Mardi Gras
a family occasion.)
You don't have to wear a costume if you don't enjoy that kind of thing. However, when you look around, you may feel stranger out of costume than in! (You might want to at least don one of the artistically diverse masks sold on every street corner.) Costuming is big business in New Orleans.
costumes were worn to keep the identities of krewe members secret. Today, the
secretiveness is no longer a big deal. However, you can still risk your
membership in older krewes, like Comus and Rex, if you take off your mask during
the parade, though even they usually forgive krewe members for moving their
masks slightly to drink more easily or to kiss a happy bead recipient!
parade-goers warn newcomers to dress comfortably -- either in costume or
streetwear -- for the parades, to bring a bag for their throws and extra tissue
for use in the port-a-lets scattered around the city. You can check parade
routing and view the spectacles from curbside, or you may want to enjoy Mardi
Gras by purchasing tickets to the city's reserved grandstand seats from Ticket
if you're going to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, make sure your trip is a safe
and pleasant one by checking out the survival
tips offered by the official
Mardi Gras site
While it's true that the annual Fat Tuesday celebration has become synonymous with adult entertainment, city tourism officials and business people have gotten together to promote alternatives to hanging out in the sometimes rowdy French Quarter during Mardi Gras.
example, some local tour companies specialize in providing entertainment for
children during Mardi Gras. While parents are collecting beads in the Quarter,
staff (all trained in CPR
and bonded) will take their children for a ride on the St.
Charles Avenue Streetcar, the world's oldest continuously running street
car, or on a carriage ride with stops at the U.S.
Mint, which displays historic Mardi Gras memorabilia, and the Musee Conti
Wax Museum to check out figures wearing traditional Mardi Gras costumes.
are cooking classes in which children create their own traditional "King
Cake" with its purple, green and gold icing. And scavenger hunts or Mardi
Gras trivia tours can be arranged for groups in the French Quarter. Families
will also enjoy special programs at the Louisiana Children's Museum,
where all Mardi Gras activities are included in the price of admission.
your children have their hearts set on seeing some of the parades, some local
hotels, such as the Hotel
Inter-Continental, invites youngsters to watch from their private reviewing
stands on St. Charles Avenue. Children get a great view of the parade, and when
they need a break they can retire to the hotel's game room for some organized
Mardi Gras fun.
don't forget about Mardi Gras Maskathon, a family-oriented costume
contest that is held on Fat Tuesday at 2 p.m. in the 600 block of Canal Street.
great family outing is a dinner
and jazz cruise on a paddlewheeler that takes you down the Mississippi River
for a view of old plantations and properties.
time and budget constraints don't allow a trip to New Orleans this Mardi Gras
season, involve the whole family in planning
your own Mardi Gras party, complete with King Cakes and mini
parade floats made with items you can find around the house!
you'd like to go to Mardi Gras next year, start planning now -- there is a lot
of good information on the New
Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site.
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MardiGrasKrewe.com. All rights reserved.
Revised: January 01, 2005