Mardi Gras is here! It’s time to get ready for the most insane party of the year, where covered by masks anyone can be a part of the celebration. New Orleans’s tradition has inspired people all over the country to dress up and to have yet another reason of having a great time. On the day of Mardi Gras, New Orleans dips in the center of fun and reveling. Sometimes, it is hard to believe that this reviving and unrealistic day has its origin in religion.
Mardi Gras was not originated as a reason for nudity, drinking, and frowned-upon behavior. From French, it literally means “Fat Tuesday”. This day falls on the day before Ash Wednesday and is the climax of a week-long carnival season and the last hurrah before Lent begins, a 40-day season of prayer and fasting observed by the Roman Catholic Church which ends on Easter Sunday. The origin of “Fat Tuesday” comes from the ancient Pagan custom of parading a fat ox through the town streets. This holiday was filled with excessive eating, drinking and general bawdiness prior to a period of fasting. It ends abruptly at midnight on Tuesday, with battalions of street sweepers pushing the crowds out of the French Quarter towards home.
The traditional colors of Mardi Gras are purple, symbolic of justice; green, symbolic of faith; and gold, symbolic of power. The accepted story behind the original selection of these colors originates from 1872, when the Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia visited New Orleans. During his stay, he was given the honor of selecting the official Mardi Gras colors by the Krewe of Rex. Krewes were private groups with semi-mythological namesakes that organize thematic parades. The 1892 Rex Parade theme, “Symbolism of Colors,” first gave meaning to the representation of the official Mardi Gras colors.
Almost all of the New Orleans parades travel down St. Charles Avenue and into the Central Business District. Very few parades actually go into the French Quarter because of the narrow streets in this old, historic section of town.
Nighttime Mardi Gras parades feature flame-wielding “flambeaux carriers.” Interspersed between the elaborate parade floats, which are now themselves brightly lit, the flambeaux carriers spin, twirl and dip their bodies, while keeping their torches aflame.
One thing all Mardi Gras parades have in common are that the riders throw things to the crowd. Of course, the main items are the Mardi Gras beads. But they also throw plastic cups and coins with the date and the krewe’s theme for the year. Some of the parades have throws that are unique to the krewe.
One of the more inclusive traditions of the parades is the presentation of the Mardi Gras King and Queen.
In a city known for its food culture, the act of purchasing a king cake is a beloved part of Mardi Gras. Sold only during the Carnival season, king cake is a large braided Danish pastry, typically spiced with cinnamon and covered with green, purple, and gold sugar, corresponding to Mardi Gras’ colors. Socked away inside the cake is a tiny plastic baby, and whoever discovers the little tyke in their slice is required to buy the next king cake.
Mardi Gras and masks go hand in hand. They, in particular, originated in ritual celebrations. In the beginning, masks worn during Mardi Gras allowed wearers to escape society and class constraints. When wearing a mask, carnival goers were free to be whomever they wanted to be, and mingle with whatever class they desired to mingle with. Today, everyone wears masks during Mardi Gras. In fact, float riders are required to wear masks by law. On Fat Tuesday, everyone is free to wear masks, adding to the excitement and magic of celebrations throughout the city.
“Less is more” and wear flat shoes to be prepared to go with the flow. It’s the one season of the year, beside Halloween, when you can dress up as anything imaginable. There are contests for costumes in every part of the city, and the crowd-watching is as much fun as the parades. Even if you choose not to wear a costume, be sure to wear Mardi Gras colors, decorate your neck, arms, legs in colorful beads, glue shiny sequins on your face to spice up your make-up, and insert exotic feathers in your hair – all of this to look the part!