Mardis Gras, meaning Fat Tuesday in French, has been synonymous with joyous celebration before Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent. The festivities begin on January 6th which is also known as the Feast of the Epiphany.
The long tradition of Mardi Gras celebrations date back to Medieval Europe, In New Orleans, Mardi Gras celebrations stem from Catholicism but are also entwined with “French celebrations, African music and the masquerade tradition,” states Karen Leathem, museum historian for the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.
The first recorded Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans dates back to 1699 with people gathering around a campfire. By the 1730s, most of the modern-day traditions we know had started. People wore masks in processions, with slaves carrying flambeaux, or torches, Leathem says. Fat Tuesday became an official holiday in Louisiana in 1857, with the first parade being organized by the Mistick Krewe of Comus.
A krewe is a “fanciful spelling of crew” and an organization that puts on festivities for Mardi Gras, says Mark Romig, president and CEO of New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. Krewes name a royal court, including a king and queen, who ride the floats and preside over the balls.
“It’s almost a spoof on European aristocracy,” Hardy says. “It’s all in fun, but we take our fun very seriously.”
There are more than 50 major parades hosted by krewes in the metropolitan New Orleans area.
Mardis Gras Indians are African Americans who dress in elaborate headdresses and costumes for the Carnival celebrations. The origins of the Mardis Gras Indians are contested. One theory is that the Mardis Gras tradition formed because of the black people’s respect for Native Americans, who helped and took in runaway slaves.
Another theory states the tradition was influenced by William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West show in 1884, and had nothing to do with indigenous Native Americans, Hardy says. “Our Mardi Gras Indians kind of copied the headdresses of those Indians,” Hardy said. He also points out that one of the oldest Mardi Gras Indian tribes is called Creole Wild West.
Riders on the floats often toss out “throws” or inexpensive trinkets to the crowd, including strings of beads. The beads used to be made of glass, but today they are mostly plastic, and the most popular are the ones that light up with LED lights.
Today’s custom of wearing masks comes from the European masquerade tradition, which used to be a way for people to “escape society and class constraints,” according to Mardis Gras New Orleans.
“You could be anyone you wanted to pretend to be,” Hardy says. “Anonymity is a key ingredient.”
King cake is a ring of dough, cinnamon-streaked, filled or plain and topped with sugar in the traditional colors of Mardis Gras, purple, green and gold. A plastic representation of baby Jesus is baked into the cake.
In the late 19th century, the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe started the custom of hiding a bean inside a cake. The person who found the bean would be crowned king or queen of the ball.
The tradition of a plastic baby in the cake started in the 1930s, when Donald Entringer, president of McKenzie’s Bakeries, was asked to make king cakes for a krewe. He found some pink plastic babies in a shop in New Orleans’ French Quarter and got permission from the health department to bake them into his cakes.