Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, is a celebration that marks the culmination of the Carnival season, starting on or after the Christian feast of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) and ending on the day before Ash Wednesday, which initiates the Lenten season. Lent is a period of 40 days of fasting and repentance leading up to Easter. The celebration is most famously associated with New Orleans, Louisiana, in the United States, but people around the world in countries with significant Roman Catholic populations also celebrate it.
Medieval Europe saw the beginnings of Mardi Gras, with the traditions passing through Rome and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries to the French House of the Bourbons. The tradition of “Boeuf Gras,” or fatted calf, then followed the French to their colonies.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans
The Le Moyne brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, introduced Mardi Gras to North America as a French Catholic tradition when King Louis XIV sent them to defend France’s claim on the territory of Louisiana. They celebrated the first recorded Mardi Gras in Louisiana in 1699, shortly after arriving, when Iberville camped about 60 miles downriver from what is now New Orleans and named the site Point du Mardi Gras.
Over centuries, Mardi Gras in New Orleans transformed from a simple French Catholic celebration into a massive city-wide event. The city held its first modern Mardi Gras parade in 1837, and the traditions of masked balls and elaborate floats quickly became established.
Evolution and Traditions
The celebrations of Mardi Gras include several weeks of masquerade balls, parades, and social gatherings leading up to Fat Tuesday. Music, costumes, and the use of masks characterize the festivities. Various krewes (social organizations) spend the entire year working on parade floats, which are a central part of the celebration.
A unique aspect of the New Orleans celebration is the practice of throwing beads and other trinkets from the floats to the parade watchers, known as “throws.” The official colors of Mardi Gras are purple (representing justice), green (faith), and gold (power).
Global Mardis Gras Celebrations
Mardi Gras is celebrated in many countries outside the United States, where Catholic populations are significant, such as Brazil’s Carnival, Italy’s Carnevale, and the traditional Fasnacht in Switzerland and Germany. Each country and culture contribute their own traditions and flavors to the celebration, making Mardi Gras a diverse and widely celebrated event worldwide.
Mardi Gras continues to be a time for festive excess and joy before the reflective season of Lent, merging religious tradition, local culture, and community celebration into a vibrant tapestry of history and festivity.
Visiting During Mardis Gras
You can expect a party atmosphere all across New Orleans during (what locals call) parade season. Although Mardis Gras itself is just one day, parade season, or carnival season, last 30 days culminating on Fat Tuesday.
In the uptown and Matairie areas, the parades are family friendly, becoming more adult oriented towards the French Quarter.