February 28, 2017
Gather Your Krewe
Everyone’s heard about Mardi Gras, but how much do you really know about this annual holiday?
Mardi Gras literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French, and it’s named for the tradition of eating rich, fatty foods before fasting for Lent (which starts the next day, on Ash Wednesday). In some places, however, the day is better known as “Shrove Tuesday”, and is often celebrated with the eating of traditional foods including pancakes!
This year Mardi Gras falls on February 28, but it can fall anywhere from February 3 to March 9. Mardi Gras is technically just one day, but in some places it’s celebrated for weeks beforehand, and is the culmination of the entire period known as Carnival, which starts on January 6, also known as Twelfth Night, as in the Shakespeare play.
Mardi Gras is most famously celebrated in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, and in fact in the week leading up to Mardi Gras, New Orleans’ population can double in size, helping the holiday generate over $1 billion in spending in that city alone!
Mardi Gras first reached America in 1699 when a French-Canadian explorer founded “Pointe du Mardi Gras” near modern-day New Orleans on the eve of Mardi Gras. Celebrations associated with the holiday happened annually after that, although the first New Orleans Mardi Gras parade complete with floats didn’t appear until 1857. It was a bit smaller than modern parades, consisting of just two floats drawn by mules, followed by a private ball held by the Mistick Krewe of Comus.
The first throws appeared in 1870 along with the founding of the Krewe known as the Twelfth Night Revelers. Then the final pieces of the Mardi Gras puzzle-including the official colors-arrived in 1872, when the Rex Krewe was founded by a group of businessmen in order to celebrate the arrival of the Grand Duke of Russia in New Orleans. Finally, in 1875 Mardi Gras became an official holiday.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is often associated with the Fleur-de-lis and the colors of purple, green and gold. The colors were supposedly selected to represent justice, faith and power, but some say they represent the Catholic faith, and some say they were simply chosen because they look good.
The Fleur-de-lis, or lily flower, has long been an image associated with France and French heritage. It doesn’t specifically have anything to do with Mardi Gras, but because New Orleans and Mardi Gras are inextricably tied together, it’s become associated. Since 2008 it’s also been an official symbol of the state of Louisiana.
Mardi Gras parades and balls are organized by clubs called krewes (pronounced crews) such as Rex, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, Zulu, and the Krewe of Proteus. Many of them have their own websites and parades which follow the same route every year. Some krewes design and build their own floats, while others hire professionals for the more elaborate designs.
In New Orleans, smaller parades happen starting the Wednesday prior to Mardi Gras, and the larger krewes begin to parade on Saturday and Sunday leading up to all-day parties. Then the main affair begins on “Fat Tuesday” and goes straight until midnight (or beyond).
The larger balls are held in large venues such as the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome. The most important ball is the “Rex Ball” or “Meeting of the Courts”, which happens at midnight on Mardi Gras and signifies the end of Carnival, and Mardi Gras.
Throws are trinkets that krewes toss from parade floats, and include strings of beads, small toys, cups, and doubloons. Beads were traditionally made of glass until modern days when less expensive plastic beads took over. Recently, however, objects such as toys, stuffed animals, or figurines are increasing in popularity, along with doubloons. These large, colorful coins often bear the name or emblem of the krewe throwing them to the crowd, and may be specially minted for specific parades or floats. The most highly-prized doubloons are so rare that they’re not even thrown from floats, just handed out to members. Some doubloons can be quite valuable.
Before Mardi Gras, masks are not typically worn during parades, but may be worn at masquerade balls. On Mardi Gras itself, local laws against wearing masks to conceal identities are suspended and business are closed. By law, float riders must wear masks, but most revelers just wear them because they’re fun, as well as a symbol of equality. With a mask on, there are no social or economic differences–everyone mingles with everyone else.
Flambeaux, or torches, were originally a necessity to light the way for night parades, but nowadays these are just traditional and a form of performance art. Originally flambeaux were actual wooden torches wrapped in tarry rags, and then oil-burning lamps on long poles, but modern flambeaux are much safer and designed to stay lit all night long.
Another Mardi Gras tradition is the baking of King Cakes, related to the Feast of the Epiphany on Twelfth Night (the start of Carnival). Each highly-decorated King Cake contains a tiny plastic baby hidden inside; by tradition, the lucky person who gets the slice of cake with the baby “wins” by becoming the person to bake the next King Cake!