Mardi Gras is a holiday unlike any other, however, few know how this beloved celebration came to be.
What began as a jubilee in medieval times has evolved over the centuries. Mardi Gras, also referred to as Carnival and Fat Tuesday, began as a religious holiday first celebrated in places like Rome. In the days approaching the season of Lent, Christians would consume their remaining meat, eggs, milk, cheese and other foods to prepare for the weeks of fasting.
Some historians believe Mardi Gras first came to the New World in March of 1699.
When notable French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville arrived in what is now Louisiana, they held a small celebration they called “Point du Mardi Gras.” It was the first of many celebrations that would be held in Louisiana.
But Carnival did not stick around at first. When the Spanish took control of New Orleans in 1763, they abolished the festivities. Mardi Gras did not return to the city until 1812 when Louisiana officially became a state.
Since its arrival in the New World, Mardi Gras has evolved far beyond its simple Christian traditions.
It is celebrated in other parts of the world as well – most typically found in places with large Roman Catholic populations – with each region having its own traditions. One such example, Brazil, celebrates for an entire week and incorporates European and African native traditions in addition to their own.
Today, Louisiana is the only state in the U.S. where Mardi Gras is considered a legal holiday, though it is celebrated throughout many Southern states like Mississippi and Alabama.
To some, New Orleans is considered the Mardi Gras capital, celebrating for weeks before Fat Tuesday arrives with parades, king cakes, beads, balls and more.
Arthur Hardy, a Mardi Gras historian, once said, “We cannot afford to not have Mardi Gras. That message would be, ‘New Orleans is closed for business.’”
Mardi Gras will continue to evolve with each generation. New traditions will be born and new celebrations will be had, but the spirit of Mardi Gras will always be the same. At the heart of it all, it will always be a celebration to prepare for Lent.
Symbols of Mardi Gras:
Beads, trinkets, doubloons and other items you might catch at a parade are often called “throws.” Despite Mardi Gras beginning much earlier, the tradition of throws did not begin until the 1830s, when Mardi Gras first arrived in the new world. The Krewe of Rex began the tradition of “throws” by passing out sugarcoated almonds to their crowds. Instantly popular, other krewes began passing out items as well. Cheap glass beads were among the most popular throws, and still are to this day. The beads have evolved over time into plastic ones, but some parade Krewes still throw traditional glass beads as well. Today, most Krewes throw out a variety of items unique to their own parade and theme.
Purple, Green and Gold
Like the tradition of throws, the famous purple, green and gold colors of Mardi Gras also came from the Krewe of Rex. In 1872, Rex chose the colors to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich Romanov. The house colors of the Romanov were purple, green and gold. Each color in itself represents something: purple represents justice, green represents faith and gold represents power.
Like the celebration itself, king cakes reflect a religious symbolism. The festive cakes were named for the three kings who made the journey to meet the newborn Jesus Christ, who is symbolized in the cakes by the small plastic baby baked into the dough. Traditionally, the first king cakes of the season are baked on the 12th day after Christmas, known as the Feast of the Epiphany. For more detailed information on king cakes, see our story here.