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What is Mardi Gras?

Read about Mardi Gras and learn about its rich history.

Beads and coins are thrown from elaborate parade floats during Mardi Gras. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
Beads and coins are thrown from elaborate parade floats during Mardi Gras.

The term Mardi Gras translates as Fat Tuesday in French. Mardi Gras is also known as Shrove Tuesday on the Roman Catholic religious calendar and as Carnival depending on where celebratory events are taking place.

In the United States, New Orleans, Louisiana, has the most well-known Mardi Gras celebration. Around the world, famous celebrations are also held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Venice, Italy; and Cologne, Germany. The date of Mardi Gras changes each year as determined by the Roman Catholic religious ritual calendar.

Shrove Tuesday

For Roman Catholics, Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of the 40-day period of fasting and abstinence known as Lent. Especially in European countries, pancakes have been traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday as a way to use up all the eggs, fat and milk in the household before the Lenten fast.

Mardi Gras is not just a celebration on Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras is a season of celebrations officially beginning in many locales, including New Orleans, on January 6, the Epiphany or Twelfth Night (12 days after Christmas) on the Roman Catholic religious calendar. The Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings from the East who bore gifts for the Christ child.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

The Mardi Gras tradition was brought to North America by French settlers. New Orleans Mardi Gras is the most famous Mardi Gras celebration in the United States; however, the first American Mardi Gras was celebrated in the city of Mobile, Alabama in 1703.

While New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations start as early as January, parades begin 12 days before Mardi Gras Day. The parades and costumed balls part of the celebration were originated and sponsored by secretive local social organizations known as krewes.

The most elaborate parade floats, built by krewe members, are shown on Mardi Gras Day. Costumed krewe members have traditionally manned the floats, tossing strings of beads and Mardi Gras coins into the crowds of costumed revelers that line the streets of the French Quarter, the city's oldest neighborhood.

Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans have been cancelled only 13 times. This includes the Civil War, both World Wars and during a yellow fever epidemic in the 1870s. The aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Katrina, however, did not stop New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration in the French Quarter.

Mardi Gras Krewes

The first official Mardi Gras krewe was The Cowbellions de Rakin Society of Mobile's Mardi Gras. During the Mobile parade, this costumed group would ring cowbells and brandish rakes and hoes. In 1857, The Cowbellions de Rakin Society helped organize New Orleans first krewe, The Mistick Krewe of Comus.

Before the establishment of krewe societies, New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations were unorganized street parties. The Mistick Krewe of Comus established the first themed nighttime Mardi Gras parade.

The Krewe of Rex was established in 1872 to honor the Russian Grand Duke during a Mardi Gras visit to New Orleans. The Krewe of Rex established the official Mardi Gras colors: purple, green and gold. It was no accident that these colors were also the colors of Russia's royal House of Romanoff, further honoring the Grand Duke. The Krewe of Rex also created the King of Carnival (King Rex) tradition.

The Krewe of Bacchus is a more recently established krewe. The Krewe was started in 1968 by a group of New Orleans business people led by Owen Brennan Sr., the owner of the French Quarter's famous Absinthe House Bar and Brennan's Restaurant. The Krewe of Bacchus was founded as an alternative to what was perceived as the stodginess and exclusivity of the krewe tradition, allowing even tourists to join.

In 1992, several of the oldest krewes, including The Mistick Krewe of Comus stopped participating in Mardi Gras parades after the New Orleans city council passed a law prohibiting racial discrimination in krewe groups.

Another famous krewe, The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club has been a longtime African-American Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans. For over a century the Zulus have reenacted old-time minstrel shows complete with blackface makeup. At the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, some groups objected to the Zulu krewes performance. The tradition, however, continues to this day.

Mardi Gras Around the World

Mardi Gras or Carnival in Rio de Janeiro includes the Entrudo, a celebratory tradition that is sloppier than New Orleans traditions, where spectators and participants get soaked by buckets of water and limes. Like the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations, Rio's Carnival has been run by social organizations. The Grande Sociedades (Great Societies) were established by Brazil's aristocrats, including the country's then emperor. Also like the New Orleans celebration, music has played an important role in Carnival, particularly Samba.

Mardi Gras in Cologne, Germany is a 17-week celebration culminating in the Rose Monday (the Monday before Ash Wednesday) parade. This celebration traditionally begins at 11:11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month each year. Besides the Rose Monday parade, Women's Carnival is a popular event where women gather in Cologne's Old Market Square and select male partners for their day's celebrations in local taverns and beer halls.

The Carnival of Venice, Italy is the first recorded Carnival celebration, established in 1268. It was a sophisticated event with masked balls and ornate parades. Until it was banned by Mussolini's fascist regime in the 1930s, The Carnival of Venice was the largest celebration in Europe. In the 1980s this tradition was revived as a much smaller and exclusive event.

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