Let The Good Times Roll: Mardi Gras Facts, History, And Traditions

Millions of people celebrate Mardi Gras every year. It’s a holiday that dates back thousands of years and is also called Carnival or Carnaval. It is popular in many countries, including the United States. And while New Orleans is one of the hot spots in the U.S., it’s not the only place where you can join in on the festivities.

If you like to party and are a little curious about the origins of Mardi Gras as well as some of its popular traditions, check out some of these fascinating facts.

It’s A Christian Holiday

mardi gras mask
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Mardi Gras has its roots in pagan traditions and it initially celebrated spring and fertility. When Christianity came to Rome, the religious officials decided to keep the old traditions and integrate them into the newer religion. This was much easier than completely banning the festivities.

The Mardi Gras debauchery wound up taking place prior to Lent, which involves 40 days of fasting. The celebrations eventually spread to other countries in Europe, including England, France, Spain, and Germany.

Mardi Gras Means ‘Fat Tuesday’ In French

Mardi Gras revelers
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

In 2021, Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” falls on Tuesday, February 16. It is the last day of Carnival season, and the 24-hour event always occurs on the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent. The annual Carnival actually kicks off 12 days after Christmas, which is on January 6.

The Mardi Gras celebration is referred to as Fat Tuesday because it’s the last night revelers are supposed to eat rich and fatty meals (such as meat and cheese) before they start fasting for Lent.

Louisiana Wasn’t the Location of America’s First Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras revelers
EMILY KASK/AFP via Getty Images
EMILY KASK/AFP via Getty Images

The first Mardi Gras in North America was actually celebrated in Alabama and not Louisiana. In 1699, French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville traveled to what we now know as Mobile, Alabama, on Fat Tuesday. He decided to have a party and named the spot Point du Mardi Gras.

Over the years, French visitors would travel to that spot specifically to celebrate Fat Tuesday. Mobile, therefore, claims that it features the oldest Mardi Gras celebrations in the United States.

A Duke From Russia Reportedly Started The Tradition Of Using The Colors Purple, Green and Gold

GettyImages-1134139874
Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images
Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Legend has it that Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia started the tradition of using the colors gold, green, and purple during Mardi Gras. When he visited the United States in 1872 as a goodwill ambassador, his courtiers reportedly gave partygoers a variety of purple, green, and gold beads, which represented the colors of his home.

Over time, the three colors were integrated into the Carnival and were later labeled purple for justice, gold for power, and green for faith.

The King Cake Has Biblical Backstory And A Tiny Figurine Baked Inside

King Cake
Eyepix/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Eyepix/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The king cake goes all the way back to the medieval period when people from France, Belgium, and Spain celebrated the 12th day of Christmas with desserts and presents. It was around this time that kings visited baby Jesus and presented him with gifts and sweets, including what would become the king cake.

These glazed and frosted cakes are often circular, braided, and are decorated in green, purple, and gold. They are designed to look like the crown a king wears. Many also feature a baby figurine that is baked inside, and whoever finds it must host a party the following year.

A Secret Society Turned Mardi Gras Into the Party It Is Today

Secret Society
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Mardi Gras may not be what we know it to be today if it wasn’t for a secret society known as the Mistik Krewe of Comus. Celebrations occurred as far back as the early 1700s, but they were often banned because, frankly, people got too drunk and destructive.

In 1837, the Mistik Krewe of Comus turned the crazy partying atmosphere into a celebration featuring parades and extravagant balls. It didn’t take too long for officials to fully embrace Fat Tuesday celebrations in New Orleans.

Over 70 Krewes Take Part in Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras parade
Rusty Costanza/Getty Images
Rusty Costanza/Getty Images

While the Mistik Krewe of Comus is the oldest member of the New Orleans Mardi Gras festivities, it’s not the only one. In fact, there are over 70 societies, or krewes, that take part in the celebrations every year.

Each one of these krewes builds a parade float that follows a particular theme. They often feature celebrity guests to pump up the parade-goers and revelers. One unique group is called the Krewe of Chewbacchus, which merges Chewbacca from Star Wars with the Greek God of Wine.

The Krewes Throw A Variety Of Gifts To Revelers From Their Floats

Krewes on floats
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

When you attend the Mardi Gras parade, expect to get some special party favors from the people on the floats (if you are able to catch any). The floats hand out “throws,” which are various objects that they toss into the crowd. For example, the Krewe of Zulu hands out coconuts, while other groups give out plush toys and even gold doubloons.

However, the most well-known party favors are the beads, which nearly all groups have on hand for revelers. If you want any of the gifts, all you need to do is say, “Throw me something mister.”

Those Throws Weigh Millions Of Pounds In Total

Millions Of Pounds of goodies
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

It’s incredible how many items float riders toss during the parade route. It’s been estimated that they throw as much as 25 million pounds of gifts, and more than 50 percent ends up on the streets. Fortunately, many of the beads are recycled for the following year.

If you’re looking for something particularly entertaining, watch for the Krewe of Tucks float, which features a giant toilet bowl. The riders hand out bathroom-themed throws, including toilet paper and mini plungers. Other floats even toss out hot dogs.

It’s Illegal To Wear A Mask In New Orleans Except During Mardi Gras

Revelers in creepy masks
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

When you think of Mardi Gras, you can’t help but visualize all the masks that revelers wear during the festivities. And while they are a big part of the celebration, they’re a big no-no when it comes to the rest of the year. That’s because they’re banned in the city except on Mardi Gras.

The masks allow people to play a role in the party atmosphere and let it all hang out without revealing their identities. However, New Orleans has an ordinance that prohibits people from wearing masks except on Mardi Gras. Then, they must take them off by 6 p.m.

All Riders On The Floats Are Required To Wear Masks

Float riders in masks
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

If you are one of the lucky ones who gets to ride a float during the Mardi Gras parade, be prepared to cover up your face. There’s a law in place in New Orleans that requires all float riders to wear masks.

To avoid any illegal activities, float riders faithfully put them on each year. The reason why is because officials wanted to remove social constructs on that particular day. This allowed citizens to party and hang out with whoever they wanted to regardless of their social class.

Mardi Gras Is A Legal Holiday In Just One State (Louisiana, of Course!)

Mardi Gras Is A Legal Holiday
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

While many people around the United States celebrate Mardi Gras, it’s officially a holiday in Louisiana. So, if you’re expecting a day off on Fat Tuesday and you live in Wyoming, you’re out of luck.

Despite the fact that it’s a working day for most people, various states and cities mark the event and host elaborate festivities, including Alabama and Mississippi. Each region also hosts special events and has their own traditions, so it’s worth going to more than one so you can experience the diversity of Mardi Gras.

Several Other Countries Also Throw Huge Mardi Gras Parties

Other Countries Also Throw Huge Mardi Gras Parties
Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Buda Mendes/Getty Images

You probably know about Brazil’s week-long Carnival celebrations, which include a mixture of native, African, and European traditions. Quebec City in Canada also hosts a huge winter carnival during the same time frame. And in Italy, visitors travel to Carnevale in Venice, which dates back to the 13th century and is known for its masquerade balls.

Then there’s the German celebration, which is known as Karneval, Fastnacht, or Fasching, where people attend costume balls and parades and cut off men’s neckties. In Denmark, children get candy in a tradition that is comparable to Halloween in America.

Mardi Gras Is Also Celebrated As ‘Pancake Day’

Pancake Day
Yunus Dalgic/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Yunus Dalgic/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As we mentioned earlier, Mardi Gras is called Fat Tuesday because it’s the last day to gorge on delicious food before fasting for Lent. Some countries celebrate Pancake Day on Mardi Gras, including England, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and Canada. It’s also known as Shrove Tuesday and involves the consumption of copious amounts of pancakes.

Many Christians observe Shrove Tuesday, which is the last day of the liturgical season. The word shrove comes from the English word shrive, which is to obtain absolution for your sins through Confession and penance.

Flashing For Beads Is Not A Mardi Gras Tradition

Beads on a fence
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Krewes have been throwing beads to revelers since the early 1900s, but several years ago some women started flashing their torsos to get in on the action. However, women are not required to do it. Those who ask ladies to lift up their shirts can be arrested on the parade route.

This type of behavior can occur after the parades end on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, an area that is known for its strip joints. But it is not a tradition.

There’s A New King Of Mardi Gras Each Year

King of Mardi Gras
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Every year there’s a new King of the Carnival, also known as a Rex. This New Orleans tradition started in 1872. The city chooses a different Rex each year, and this person is typically a well-known individual from the area. He is given a key to the city, which is symbolic.

The first King of Mardi Gras was the Russian Grand Duke Romanoff. City leaders chose him in order to make him feel welcome and decided to give him a crown for the celebrations. The Carnival also features a Queen.

Officials Have Canceled Mardi Gras Several Times For Very Good Reasons

man in banana costume
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

While many people are always in the mood to party, there are times when huge celebrations like Mardi Gras are simply inappropriate. The festivities have been canceled around 12 times since the first festival took place in New Orleans.

More often than not, Mardi Gras has been canceled during wartime. This includes the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. In the 1870s, the parades were canceled due to the spread of yellow fever.

The Party Went On Even Following Hurricane Katrina’s Destruction

The Party Went On After Katrina
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans when it hit in August of 2005. Most of the city was destroyed by the massive storm, and people feared it would affect the Mardi Gras celebrations, which are prepared for throughout the entire year. As luck would have it, the hurricane spared most of the French Quarter, where a large part of the festivities are held.

By the time the hurricane struck, most of the floats were already under construction. Fortunately, they were largely unharmed. Six months later, the celebrations went on as planned.

The City Makes Millions Of Dollars From The Event

a train float
Skip Bolen/WireImage
Skip Bolen/WireImage

If you live in New Orleans and are involved in any type of Mardi Gras celebrations, you have the potential to make a good chunk of change. The city itself has a very large population, and tons of tourists visit specifically to celebrate Mardi Gras each year.

As a result, the local economy thrives on all the business that comes in. During any one Mardi Gras festival, between $144 and $500 million flows into the city. It also costs a lot of money to make some of the floats (as much as $100,000), so suppliers benefit from that expense as well.

Mardi Gras Is Great For Kids (And Even Dogs)

Mardi Gras Is Great For Kids
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Mardi Gras isn’t just for adults looking to party and partake in bodily pleasures. In fact, many of the celebrations are family-friendly and all-inclusive, meaning you can even get the family pet involved. In fact, there are several dog parades in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and along the Louisiana Northshore.

As for kids, local families flock to a bunch of parade-watching spots on St. Charles and Napoleon Streets where it’s easier to get treats from the floats. St. Charles at 3rd or 4th Street is also a good spot for children.