Mardi Gras History and More!

"The Meaning of Mardi Gras You Say"? 

"Mardi 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.

Masks, Music, and Mayhem

French 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 the excitement.
 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).

Krewes: New Orleans Royalty

Mardi 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 celebrations alive.

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.

Catch 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.

The first "modern" Mardi Gras 

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.

Following 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 anthem.

With 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.

Today, 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 balls.

Economists 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 autonomous.

Although 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.

A 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 party.

And 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.

The 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

Before 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":

The Parades
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!

During 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.

While 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 the parades?
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.

The 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.

Less 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 season!

The 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.

Almost 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.

The 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, mister!
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

People 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.)


The Costumes
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.  

Originally, 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!

Veteran 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 Master.

Also, 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

Family Fun?
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.

For 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.

There 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.

If 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.

And 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.

Another 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.

If 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!

If 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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Revised: January 01, 2005