It’s time to get ready for one of the best events in all of Louisiana – Mardi Gras! Time to practice those phrases, “Throw me somethin’ Mister” (well known as the proper expression to beg for beads as the floats pass) and “Laissez les bon temps rouler” (a Cajun French expression meaning “Let the Good Times Roll!”).
Mardi Gras celebrations take place all over the state, from north to south, east to west. The difficult part is deciding where to go, especially on Mardi Gras day. Louisiana not only celebrates Mardi Gras the traditional way, with parades and Mardi Gras Balls, but Cajun Country (Acadiana) also celebrates Courir de Mardi Gras, commonly known as the “chicken run” where people in colorful costumes chase and catch chickens for a gumbo to be prepared Mardi Gras evening for the town.
Many traditions go along with the celebration of the season. Here are some fun facts concerning this popular season of the year:
- HISTORY OF MARDI GRAS
The celebration of Mardi Gras in North America is believed to have begun in 1699 in Plaquemines Parish near the mouth of the Mississippi River. A few years later, French soldiers and settlers adorned themselves with masks and celebrated with great feasts in present day Mobile, Alabama. That city claims to have the oldest annual Mardi Gras celebration in the United States. New Orleans first celebrated Mardi Gras in 1718, however, the first recorded parade didn’t occur until 1837. In 1872 the Krewe of Rex and the Knights of Momus began holding Mardi Gras balls and hosting parades.
- NAMES FOR MARDI GRAS
There are many names which are synonymous with Mardi Gras. The entire season is actually called “Carnival”. Mardi Gras Day is not only referred to as “Mardi Gras” but also “Fat Tuesday”, meaning a day where people can eat what they want and as much as they want, because a long time of fasting for Christians begins with Lent the next day.
- WHEN DOES CARNIVAL SEASON BEGIN?
Carnival season begins much earlier than Mardi Gras day. In Louisiana, it begins on January 6th, a Christian holiday known as Epiphany, Three Kings Day or the Twelfth Day of Christmas. This is the time when grand, private Mardi Gras Balls are held. Many smaller parades take place from Epiphany all through Carnival season leading up to Mardi Gras day. As Mardi Gras day draws near, the parades get larger and larger. In New Orleans, the main part of the celebration occurs from the Thursday before Mardi Gras Day until Mardi Gras Day itself, where parades run back-to-back throughout New Orleans and surrounding areas. Parades are also held in some of the larger cities prior to Mardi Gras Day. The revelries last until midnight of Fat Tuesday, when Ash Wednesday ushers in 40 days of Lent.
- MARDI GRAS KREWES ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR HOSTING BALLS AND PARADES
Some Krewes have been hosting parades for many years, however, new Krewes are formed from time to time. Most are named after Greek or Roman mythology, and each has a King and/or Queen. The parades are typically kicked off with the Krewe leader, then the king or queen, followed by the maids and dukes and finally, the Krewe members.
- IS MARDI GRAS EVER CANCELLED?
Mardi Gras can occasionally be cancelled or scaled down, as it was during the Civil War, World War I and World War II, during the 1870’s yellow fever outbreak, and after Hurricane Katrina. The 2013 parades were interrupted by the Super Bowl. The expression “Super Gras” arose out of that particular interruption. It was also interrupted and in many cases cancelled due to the Covid outbreak in 2020.
Parades can consist of marching bands, dancers, and other organizations, but most have a variety of decorated floats. Some floats are built on top of vehicles like trucks, and some can be built on flatbeds, pulled behind trucks or tractors. The first floats were introduced in the Middle Ages. They are named “floats” because they were decorated barges on the River Thames. Floats today are elaborately decorated to coordinate with themes.
- WEARING OF MASKS:
It’s actually illegal to NOT wear a mask or paint your face for those riding a parade float. It is thought that this law was to encourage people to mingle with everyone, even those in different social classes or circles. All sorts of masks are usually part of a Mardi Gras costume and help add to the fun.
- KING CAKE IS USUALLY ONLY EATEN DURING MARDI GRAS SEASON
King Cake is typically made of brioche dough. Braided and laced with cinnamon, the dough is then glazed with purple, green and gold sugar. Today there are many variations of the King Cake, offering delicious fillings and doughs, however, they are all decorated in purple, green and gold sugar or icing. Green represents faith, gold symbolizes power, and purple is justice. In some king cakes, a small plastic baby is given along with the cake to be hidden inside so that whoever gets the slice of cake with the baby has to purchase the next cake or host the next party. In Cajun Country, the popularity of boudin King Cakes has become a much-looked-forward-to delicacy.
- MARDI GRAS INDIANS
One of the many secrets of the Mardi Gras tradition is the Mardi Gras Indians, African-American revelers who dress in spectacular costumes inspired by Native American ceremonial outfits. Though a list of scheduled parades is published by the various Krewes, you often will not see Mardi Gras Indians on that list. Their routes are sometimes secretive and they go where they want to go.
- TREASURES OF MARDI GRAS
Beads are not the only thing thrown from floats. An assortment of trinkets is common, though beads of all sizes and varieties are the standard throw – the more the merrier. The Krewe of Zulu in New Orleans began throwing coconuts as a cheap alternative to glass beads, and for many years real painted coconuts were thrown. Some were painted gold; some were painted with Zulu faces. They were extremely difficult to get, especially since the Zulu parade meandered throughout New Orleans with no set route. To find the parade and catch a coconut was a difficult but thrilling task. Today the parade has a set route and, since 1988, the City of New Orleans forbade coconuts being tossed into the crowd to avoid injuries. Instead, they must be handed out, making them even more difficult to get.
Doubloons are wood or metal coins made in Mardi Gras colors which are thrown from floats. Standard doubloons usually portray the Krewe's emblem, name, and founding date on one side, and the theme, year of the parade and ball on the other side. They are often kept as collector’s items. Original Rex doubloons from the Rex parade in New Orleans are valuable, but it’s difficult to find a certified original Rex doubloon.
- MARDI GRAS COSTUMES
Much like Halloween, it is customary to dress up in costume on Mardi Gras Day, from elaborate to indecent (particularly on Bourbon Street in New Orleans). Contests are held for the most creative costumes and often you can see whole families dress up, even the family dog.
- FLAMBEAU CARERIERS
Before parades used electric lighting, Flambeaus (flame-torches) were carried to allow New Orleans parade-goers to enjoy the spectacle of night parades. The first flambeau carriers were slaves. Today, flambeau carriers are a valuable contribution to a night parade and many people view it as a kind of performance art. It’s customary to toss quarters to them in thanks for carrying the lights for the parade, though dollar bills are appreciated even more. Many flambeau carriers are descendants from a long line of carriers.
- INDEPENDENT PARADES
Several years ago, independent parades were formed to accommodate people who wanted to ride on floats in the New Orleans area on Mardi Gras Day but not be involved with a Mardi Gras Krewe. These independent floats are also decorated and riders dress in costumes to match the theme of the float. These parades can be quite long and go on for hours.
We hope that the desire to attend Mardi Gras will awaken a thirst in you to experience the adventure of this exciting season somewhere in Louisiana. If you’ve never been, it really cannot be explained; you just have to experience it for yourself.
Book Your Stay Now at one of our Louisiana Bed and Breakfasts. Call ahead of time to find out what Mardi Gras activities are held in the area where they are located.