Mardi Gras

Fascinating Facts About New Orleans’ Mardi Gras

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Mardi Gras

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

“Let the good times roll!” seems to be the official approach to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. There’s much more to this annual tradition than partying, though this year’s festivities are offering a cautious return to more traditional revelry despite the ongoing pandemic. Read on for our sampling of Mardi Gras history, trivia, and so much more.


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Medieval Mardi Gras
Wikimedia Commons

Mardi Gras Has Strong Ties to Europe, Especially France

Mardi Gras in America traces its roots back to medieval Europe. According to MardiGrasNewOrleans.com, it eventually made its way to France’s colonies in the New World. As the site notes: “On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans, and named it ‘Pointe du Mardi Gras.’” The first Mardi Gras in America would be celebrated in 1703 in nearby Mobile.    


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Its Official Start Dates Back to the 18th Century
Wikimedia Commons

Its Official Start Dates Back to the 18th Century

Bienville, MardiGrasNewOrleans.com says, established New Orleans in 1718 and by the 1730s Mardi Gras was celebrated in the city, its earliest days marked by “elegant society balls,” which foreshadow similar events held today.


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It’s a Huge Tourist Event
Bob Sacha/Getty

It’s a Huge Tourist Event

Upward of 1 million people visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras each year. It’s also a huge moneymaker for the city, as, “Economic impact reports indicate that Mardi Gras generates over $1 billion in annual spending,” according to MardiGrasNewOrleans.com.

It's Had a Couple of Rough Pandemic Years
Etsy

It's Had a Couple of Rough Pandemic Years

NOLA.com has reported that in 2020, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras proceeded as always, underestimating the reality of the then-new pandemic and its repercussions. “Public health officials have largely accepted that (the 2020 Mardi Gras) helped make New Orleans an early coronavirus hotspot in the U.S.” With more known about the pandemic in 2021, the focal-point parades were canceled to avoid another super-spreader event. Still, it lived in some form with celebrations reinvented and many locals decorating their properties in what became known as “Yardi Gras.”  


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Its 2022 Version Is Proceeding
rustyl3599/Getty

Its 2022 Version Is Proceeding

With safety protocols firmly in place, this year’s Mardi Gras is already underway. As New Orleans public radio station WWNO reported in late January, “Most Mardi Gras parades will be shorter in 2022 due to NOPD staffing shortages. Mayor LaToya Cantrell made the announcement that the parade routes would be cut the same day she said Mardi Gras events would return after a year without parades in 2021 due to the coronavirus.”

Sliced Mardi Gras king cake surrounded by colorful beads
Lynne Mitchell/istockphoto

Its Very Being Is Tied to Religion

“While best known for parties, costumes and beads, Mardi Gras has religious origins in the Catholic calendar as well as in pre-Christian pagan celebrations,” HuffPost tells us. As MardiGrasNewOrleans.com further explains, “‘Carnival’ refers to the period of feasting and fun that begins on January 6 and ends on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the final day of revelry before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins.” People often refer to the whole season as Mardi Gras, with Fat Tuesday (this year March 1) considered “Mardi Gras Day.”

Crowds at Mardi Gras 2013
Joel Carillet/istockphoto

Its Place at the Heart of the City Cannot Be Denied

The importance of Mardi Gras to New Orleans has been proven over centuries. The deep connection was perhaps most notable in 2006, when the traditional parades went on after 2005’s devastating Hurricane Katrina — despite the citywide and personal losses suffered by so many. As the blog MyNewOrleans.com noted, “Mardi Gras 2006 was the most important of all. It wasn’t about partying, economic development or tradition; it was about a city believing in itself again.”   

 

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Mardi Gras parade by Krewe of Endymion
Joel Carillet/istockphoto

Its Parades Are a Decidedly Singular Signature

By the 1830s, Carnival was a popular annual celebration in New Orleans, with parades beginning that decade. Today, some 70 parades are held throughout the Mardi Gras season in neighborhoods throughout the city. They are organized by krewes, historical social organizations often named for figures in mythology. Each krewe selects a theme for its parade every year, leading to the creative variety on display.    

Its Floats Are Serious … Fun
Philip Gould/Getty

Its Floats Are Serious … Fun

The parades evolved to include floats, first introduced by the Mistick Krewe of Comus in 1857. Today, the elaborate floats are the pride — and great expense — of the krewes. Members ride the floats during the parades, tossing trinkets into the crowds that line the routes.

Zulu Krewe Parade New Orleans Mardi Gras Celebration Louisiana USA
Boogich/istockphoto

Its Krewes Are Numerous

The krewes are showcased in the parades but their club activities and traditional Mardi Gras balls are by invitation, with each ball naming its own krewe royalty. Over the years, the krewes — once the provenance of the city’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens — have grown, particularly during eras of segregation and exclusion when left-out groups formed their own organizations.

African Americans in Mardi Gras Indian costume.
zimmytws/istockphoto

Its Celebration Has Ties to Native American Tradition

As per NewOrleans.com, “One of the most mysterious, fascinating and colorful pieces of New Orleans’ cultural quilt belongs to Mardi Gras Indians. A unique and historic subculture of New Orleans, Mardi Gras Indians and their traditions date back to the 1800s when Native Americans helped shield runaway slaves … When African Americans were later banned from mainstream Mardi Gras Krewes, they created their own celebration known as Carnival in their own neighborhoods. Delayed but not deterred, various communities of eager paraders took to their respective neighborhoods and began celebrating on their own. These various communities would continue on to make up their own tribes of Mardi Gras Indians for decades on.”

Mardi Gras, New Orleans
Franz Marc Frei/Getty

Its Costumes Are Striking

According to MardiGras.com, the elaborate costumes in New Orleans follow a European tradition, particularly those of the celebrations found in Nice, France, and Venice, Italy, where Carnival traditions are longstanding. In its earliest days, many New Orleans costumes and designs were made in France. NewOrleans.com adds that the Mardi Gras Indians are particularly noted for their costumes, “Their hand-sewn creations feature intricate beadwork and dramatic images and rank among the nation’s best folk art. Worn just once, the suits take an entire year to create and can cost thousands of dollars depending on the member’s position in the tribe and craftsmanship. With hundreds of thousands of beads, brightly dyed ostrich plumes, sequins, velvet and rhinestones sewn on by hand, some end up weighing as much as 150 pounds.”  

Mardi gras masks
CrackerClip/istockphoto

Its Celebrations Have Long Included Masks

Way before COVID and masking up were routine, New Orleans was all about masks for Mardi Gras. In fact, anyone riding a float is required — by law — to wear a mask, which has yielded decorative and artistic designs. According to radio station U.S. 105 in Temple, Texas, “The original purpose of the mask was to get rid of social constraints for the day, allowing people to mingle with whomever they chose.”    

Beads everywhere
Lisa5201/istockphoto

Its Beads Are Legendary

“Throw me something” is what you’ll need to yell to score some sought-after Mardi Gras beads, those signature strands for years made of glass but now mostly plastic. People who catch them are said to have good luck. In the French Quarter, known for its, um, “adult” take on Mardi Gras, women are known to flash their breasts to score their beads.     


Its Doubloons Are Collectible
eBay

Its Doubloons Are Collectible

Much more than beads are thrown into the crowds, with trinkets also ranging from stuffed animals to shoes. Specialty coins, or doubloons, are among the most popular souvenirs, with the gold Rex doubloon — a creation of the Rex Organization, officially known as The School of Design, particularly prized.        

Zulu Coconuts
Etsy

Its Zulu Coconuts Are Legendary

Zulu coconuts are a souvenir like no other. As History.com shares, they are, “the round, painted, glittery orbs thrown out by members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. One of the oldest traditionally African-American krewes, Zulu held its first parade in 1909. The very next year, as the historical record shows, they began tossing coconuts to members of the crowd.” They went from natural brown to being painted and adorned, now usually handed into the crowd to avoid injury.

iron fence covered with Mardi Gras beads
Lynne Mitchell/istockphoto

It Has Official Colors

The official — and traditional — colors of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. Highly recognizable, they are also imbued with meaning as purple stands for justice, gold signifies power, and green represents faith. As the tourism site VisitJeffersonParish.com notes, “These are said to have been chosen in 1892 when the Rex Parade theme ‘Symbolism of Colors’ gave the colors their meanings.” According to History.com, the colors’ introduction was influenced by Russian Grand Duke Alexis’ visit in 1872, as they were the colors of his royal house.

St. Augustine High School marching band at Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Joel Carillet/istockphoto

It Has an Anthem

The Krewe of Rex selected a theme song back in 1872 — a whimsical number called “If Ever I Cease to Love” and composed by George Leybourne — and it’s been considered the celebration’s anthem ever since. Along with the traditional colors, NOLA.com reports, it’s the only official item related to Mardi Gras.    

Its Youngest Spectators Watch The Parades From Ladders
Amazon

Its Youngest Spectators Watch The Parades From Ladders

As NewOrleans.com notes, “Colorful ladders with seats line St. Charles Avenue on parade days so that children can get a clear view.” MardiGrasTraditions.com adds that local hardware stores sell parade ladders complete with wheels, kiddy seats and safety bars. Spectators have been known to elaborately decorate these ladders, as well.

Mardi Gras Parade
Roberto Galan/istockphoto

It’s A Commercial-Free Event

Don’t expect to be bombarded with corporate sponsorship or marketing ploys during the parades. As NewOrleans.com notes, “There is a city ordinance in Orleans Parish that prohibits Mardi Gras from being commercialized, i.e., no advertising is allowed on floats or can be thrown from floats.” All expenses related to the parades are paid by the krewes. 

Mardi Gras parade
Joel Carillet/istockphoto

It’s Also a Free Event

There are no tickets required or entrance fees for the Mardi Gras parades. As MardiGrasNewOrleans.com adds, “Not only that, but you'll leave with bags of Mardi Gras beads and throws.” That’s led to it being called the “Greatest Free Show on Earth.”     


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The day after mardi gras
NorthHatley/istockphoto

Its Parade Beads Live On

The seemingly never-ending trove of beads tossed during the countless parades are often taken home as souvenirs. Many, though, find a different post-parade life — decorating local trees. As Roadtrippers.com notes, “Along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, there’s a long line of bead trees. They stand tall as memories to Mardi Gras.” These artful displays (subject of many a tourist photo) stand in counterpoint to those that ended up, literally, in the gutter. NPR reported in early 2018 that a city drain-cleaning effort found 93,000 pounds of parade beads “jamming up the drainage system.”     


Homemade Colorful Mardi Gras King Cake
bhofack2/istockphoto

It’s Got Its Own Cake

Visitors to New Orleans will not go hungry, thanks to signature fare that includes po’boys, étouffée, gumbo, muffalettas, pralines, and beignets. But when it comes to Mardi Gras, the king cake reigns. NewOrleans.com describes the king cake as “a blend of coffee cake and cinnamon roll,” iced in the traditional Mardi Gras colors. Hidden within the cake is a plastic baby to represent the baby Jesus. Tradition holds that whoever gets the baby will have good luck all year and, also “must either bring the next cake or throw a party, thus sparking an unending round of food and fun.” 

 

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It’s Filled With Royalty
Erika Goldring/Getty

It’s Filled With Royalty

The call to royalty is strong in Mardi Gras, with each krewe naming its own court. One krewe, though, goes beyond its local membership for its king. The Krewe of Bacchus has been naming a celebrity as its very-public king, with the tradition kicking off with Danny Kaye in 1969. Over the years, actors, athletes, comics, musicians and singers who have worn the crown range from Perry Como to Will Ferrell, Nicolas Cage to Hulk Hogan. This year, actor Josh Duhamel is set to preside over the Feb. 27 event.     


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One King Gets a Special Honor
Rex receiving key, City Hall, New Orleans/eBay

One King Gets a Special Honor

The famed Krewe of Rex, which debuted in 1872, holds a special place in Mardi Gras lore. In a nod to the “reign” of Mardi Gras over the city, NewOrleans.com says, “Traditionally, the Mayor of New Orleans hands over the key to the city to Rex, the king of Carnival, on Mardi Gras Day.” 

It Continues to ‘Light the Way’
Philip Gould/Getty

It Continues to ‘Light the Way’

History.com notes the tradition of “blazing torches lighting the way for parade-goers during nighttime Mardi Gras festivities.” Called flambeaux, French for torch, these torches are part of a tradition that dates back to the mid-19th century. Crowds would thank these light bearers by tossing coins (today, dollars). Over time, this practical role has taken on an artistic flair, with the flambeaux carriers twirling and dancing with their torches.   

New Orleans mounted police at Mardi Gras
Joel Carillet/istockphoto

It Has an Official End

Though it may seem that New Orleans’ Mardi Gras goes on forever, it does have an official end. NewOrleans.com reports that the party’s over when, “New Orleans police officers on foot and mounted on horseback move through the crowds on Bourbon Street at midnight on Mardi Gras Day. The Mayor often joins.” Party’s over! 

It Has Its Own ‘World’
©TripAdvisor

It Has Its Own ‘World’

Kern Studios, a float-creation company, has been a part of Mardi Gras history since 1932 when, Kern history notes, “the first mule-drawn float was built on the back of a garbage wagon.” The family-owned business, which designs and builds floats for Mardi Gras and other festivals far beyond New Orleans, celebrates its historic ties to the city with Mardi Gras World. After repeated requests for tours, Blaine Kern opened the working studio to the public in 1984 and, now open daily, it’s become an attraction that “draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world each year.”

Jackson Square with St. Louis Cathedral, Presbytère and Andrew Jackson Statue in New Orleans French Quarter
Anne Czichos/istockphoto

Its History Is Honored in a Museum

If you want to learn even more about Mardi Gras — or are visiting during non-Mardi Gras seasons — the colorful history of the celebration is honored year-round at The Presbytère, a historic building (a former monks’ residence) that’s one of the sites of the Louisiana State Museum. One of its permanent exhibitions is called “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana.” 


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