Mardi Gras refers to events of the Carnival celebration, beginning on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday, which is known as Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, reflecting the practice of the last night of eating rich, fatty foods before the ritual Lenten sacrifices and fasting of the Lenten season. It is a Christian holiday and popular cultural phenomenon that dates back thousands of years to pagan spring and fertility rites. Also known as Carnival or Carnaval, it’s celebrated in many countries around the world—mainly those with large Roman Catholic populations—on the day before the religious season of Lent begins. Brazil, Venice, and New Orleans play host to some of the holiday’s most famous public festivities, drawing thousands of tourists and revelers every year. The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced back to paganic festivities honoring spring and fertility, such as the boisterous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia.
Religious authorities in Rome chose to adapt these well-liked local customs into the new religion rather than eliminate them when Christianity arrived there. The excess and revelry of the Mardi Gras season, therefore, evolved into a precursor to Lent, the 40 days of fasting and penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Tuesday is referred to in French as Mardi, while gras is French for “fat.” The day before Ash Wednesday became known as Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday” in France. In the days before Lent, people typically gorge on all the rich, fatty foods – meat, eggs, milk, cheese, and lard – that were still in their refrigerators and freezers. Mardi Gras also extended from Rome to other European nations, such as France, Germany, Spain, and England, along with Christianity.
Mardi Gras in America
The first American Mardi Gras took place on March 3, 1699, when French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville landed near present-day New Orleans, Louisiana. They held a small celebration and dubbed their landing spot Point du Mardi Gras. An explorer from France named Krewes Bienville LeMoyne founded New Orleans in 1718. In the following 20 years, the city’s annual Carnival celebration, complete with masquerade balls and other festivities, had become a yearly event. When the Spanish took control of New Orleans, however, they abolished these rowdy rituals and the bans remained in force until Louisiana became a U.S. state in 1812. In 1827, a group of students donned colorful costumes and danced through the streets of New Orleans, emulating the revelry they’d observed while visiting Paris. Gras parades, which take place the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and on the last day of Carnival, were first observed in 1838.
The Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, however, had been so seriously deteriorated by drunkenness and violence by 1857 that city officials were considering eliminating them. The Cowbellion de Rakin Society, a group that had been organizing a parade on New Year’s Eve every year since the 1830s, instead sent several members forward. They proposed opening a brand-new, exclusive club that would hold its own Mardi Gras celebration as a calm counterpoint to the current chaos. They named their new organization the Mystick Krewe of Comus (the Greek god of revelry). Mistick Krewe of Comus, a shadowy cabal of merchants from New Orleans, arranged a torch-lit Mardi Gras procession in 1857 that served as a model for later open city-wide celebrations. Rex, Latin for the king, was the first of the Mardi Gras krewes, took part in parades beginning in 1872, and helped establish the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold, and green. Krewes have been a crucial component of Louisiana’s Carnival culture ever since. A few more enduring traditions include eating King Cake, donning masks, decorating floats, and throwing beads and other decorations.
The adoption of purple, gold, and green as the official Mardi Gras colors by taking part in parades started in 1872. The customary hues of the famed Mardi Gras beads, which we also owe to the Russian Grand Duke Alexis, are where the beads’ actual meaning begins. The newly established Krewe of Rex decided to utilize the colors of the duke’s royal house for the beads that they would toss from their parade float into the masses of Mardi Gram revelers during the duke’s visit in 1872. Later, they gave each color a symbolic meaning: purple represented justice, green represented faith, and gold represented power. Tossing the beads to the audience members was thought to receive good fortune for the upcoming year for the recipient. The beads were initially made of glass; however, they are now plastic, and are one of the most popular Mardi Gras traditions.
Zulu coconuts, the round, painted, sparkly orbs tossed out by members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, are among the most sought-after Mardi Gras “flings” as well. The inaugural procession for Zulu, one of the oldest historically African-American krewes, occurred in 1909. The historical record reveals that they started throwing coconuts at audience members the very next year. The coconuts were initially left in their natural brown and hairy state but painting and adding glitter to them quickly became a custom. To prevent injury and to avoid lawsuits they are now going into the audience and given to audience members.