Masks, marching bands, colorful beads, fabulous parades, and lots of drinking. We’ve all seen these images of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It looks like a wild party, but what is Mardi Gras? Where does it come from and what exactly is Mardi Gras celebrating? Let’s take a look at the origins of this unique tradition in the US and how you can celebrate it.
What day is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras literally means “fat Tuesday” in French. It is celebrated on the Tuesday before Lent because it’s the last day on which Christians (especially Catholics) can eat rich, “fatty” foods and drink alcohol. After that, Lent is a 40-day fast. The exact date of Mardi Gras is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. It changes every year, so be sure to check.
What is Mardi Gras celebrating?
If you’re asking “what is the origin of Mardi Gras?”, we have to go back thousands of years to pagan celebrations of spring. The Romans, for example, celebrated Lupercalia, a wild celebration of feasting, sex, and animal sacrifice. When Rome became Christian, leaders incorporated the raucous celebrations as a lead-in to the austere Lent season. That’s how Mardi Gras was born. Through Christianity, Mardi Gras spread throughout Europe and eventually the Americas.
The celebration has evolved into a multi-week festival leading up to Lent called “Carnival.” Carnival is famously celebrated in Venice, Italy, In the Cologne area in Germany and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as well.
While it began as a French tradition in La Nouvelle-Orleans (New Orleans, USA), the celebration has become something unique to the city and unlike any other US city.
As a French colony, Mardi Gras was celebrated in New Orleans with elegant, masked balls. In 1857, a secret society called “Mistik Krewe of Comus” organized the first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. This parade marked the beginning of:
- floats and marching bands
- participation of “krewes” or loyal teams of participants that work together each year
Since then, krewes have been an important part of Mardi Gras. Each krewe has its own history and theme to organize events and have a large float in the parades. There’s even a Star Wars themed krewe called Krewe of Chewbacchus.
How to celebrate Mardi Gras
Now that we know what Mardi Gras is, how do we celebrate it? There are lots of opportunities to celebrate it starting weeks before with Carnival. Fun and informal, it’s also a family event.
Go to a parade
There will be parades every weekend of Carnival leading up to Mardi Gras. In the parades, you can see dozens of fabulous floats made by krewes. Krewe members will ride on the float, dancing and throwing giveaways to spectators. You’ll also see some of the best marching bands in the world. The parades are quite a spectacle.
Wearing a full costume or just a mask, dressing up is a great way to get into the spirit of Mardi Gras. The official color theme of Mardi Gras is purple, green, and gold.
Get a throw
From their floats, the krewes throw out giveaways. The most famous “throw” is a necklace of colorful, plastic beads. Catch it, and wear it proudly for the festival. You could see other throws of doubloons (aluminum coins), cups, snacks, and other souvenirs.
To get a throw, you have to shout “throw me something, mister/miss!” With luck, you get something good. Maybe try out some American slang while you’re at it.
Eat a king cake
What would Mardi Gras be without a king cake? This is a round cake of braided dough with purple, green, and gold icing. Inside the cake is a tiny baby, usually made from plastic. The person who receives the baby in their slice of cake, must bring the next king cake to the party.
Mardi Gras is fat Tuesday fun
Even though Mardi Gras has its foundations in Christian holidays, everyone can celebrate. It has evolved into a celebration that is unique to New Orleans. Now, Mardi Gras means eat, drink, and be merry. You can learn more about American culture with Lingoda.
Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.