Mardi Gras is almost here, which means it’s time to go over some facts about Mardi Gras. The more you know about the history and meaning of the holiday, the more fully you’ll be able to celebrate it!
Below we’ve compiled some of our favorite Mardi Gras facts, so get ready to be amazed! We cover everything from the best Mardi Gras souvenirs, to the reason we eat certain foods during the holiday.
You might be surprised to know that Santa Claus showed up to the 1870 Mardi Gras parade. Or maybe you’ll find it fascinating to learn that 25 million pounds of beads are thrown every year.
No matter what aspect of Mardi Gras you’re interested in, we have Mardi Gras facts and trivia for you! Keep reading to learn more about this special holiday.
What is Mardi Gras and why do we celebrate it?
Did you know that Mardi Gras is actually a religious holiday? Mardi Gras, also called Fat Tuesday, is a Christian feast day that occurs during a period of time known as Carnival.
Carnival begins on January 6 (known as Epiphany or Three Kings Day) and concludes with Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is a day of extravagant feasts and partying that occurs the Tuesday before Lent begins.
During Lent, Christians chose a luxury to give up to mirror Jesus’ sacrifice when he was in the desert for 40 days and nights resisting the temptations of Satan.
Mardi Gras is the last big hurrah before entering the penitential season of Lent.
Similar to Easter, Hanukkah, and the Chinese New Year, the date of Mardi Gras changes from year to year. It always falls on the Tuesday before Lent begins. It has occurred in both February, and also early March.
The meaning of Mardi Gras
Now that you know a little about what Mardi Gras is, and why we celebrate it, let’s dive into some Mardi Gras facts about the meaning of the holiday.
- Mardi Gras literally translates to from French to mean Fat Tuesday. Mardi means Tuesday and gras means fat.
- Lundi Gras occurs the day before Mardi Gras. Lundi means Monday in French, so Lundi Gras translates to Fat Monday.
- Mardi Gras is nicknamed “the biggest free party on earth”.
- Other names for Mardi Gras are Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday and Pancake Day.
- Carnival (sometimes spelled Carnaval and Carnevale) comes from the latin phrase carne levare which means “remove meat”. Since Carnival occurs before Lent, the origin of Carnival’s name indicates the coming fast.
- Mardi Gras and Carnival have ties to the ancient Roman fertility festivals of Saturnalia, and Lupercalia. Lupercalia is also tied to the origin of Valentine’s Day.
No matter how you refer to this holiday, it’s an important day for many people. It not only holds religious significance, but has also come to represent the city of New Orleans.
What are the symbols for Mardi Gras
Most of things we associate with modern day Mardi Gras have been around for decades! There are seven Mardi Gras symbols that are synonymous with the holiday and have appeared throughout history.
The seven symbols for Mardi Gras are king cakes, Mardi Gras masks, parades, Mardi Gras throws, the fleur de lis, Mardi Gras beads, and the official colors of Mardi Gras.
Head to our Mardi Gras symbols guide for an in depth look at the history and meanings behind the symbols of Mardi Gras.
The fleur de lis is not only a Mardi Gras symbol, but also a symbol of Louisiana in general. In 2008, governor Bobby Jindal made the fleur de lis the official state symbol. It appears on several city flags and represents the state’s football team, the New Orleans Saints.
In addition to having symbols that represent the holiday, Mardi Gras also has an unofficial slogan and a song.
“Laissez les bon temps rouler” is the unofficial slogan of Mardi Gras. It is French-Cajun for “let the good times roll”. The song “If I Cease to Love” was picked out by the krewe of Rex in 1872 to represent Mardi Gras.
What are king cakes?
If you’re in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, you’re likely to find all sorts of delicious food, but none as symbolic as the king cake. Let’s go over some Mardi Gras facts about king cakes.
King cakes are round cakes with a hole in the center. The dough has a brioche-like texture and a sweet cinnamon flavor. It is decorated with icing and sprinkles in the colors of Mardi Gras (purple, green and gold).
- King cakes have religious symbolism.
- When you cut into a king cake, you may be surprised to find that there is a piece of king cake with a baby in it. The baby in the king cake symbolizes Jesus.
- Everyone is hoping to get the slice of king cake with the baby inside, because it signals prosperity, luck, and fortune for the coming year.
- The person who gets the slice of king cake with the baby is responsible for hosting the next year’s Mardi Gras party, and providing the next king cake. They are also dubbed the “king” or “queen” for the night.
- Historically, the baby used to be porcelain, but bakers now opt for plastic babies as they are more readily available.
- King cakes should only be eaten during the Carnival season. Though you might be able to find them at other times, it is thought of as a special food only consumed during Carnival.
Eating king cake during Mardi Gras is similar to eating hot cross buns around Easter. This traditional Easter bread can also be found during other times of the year (like on its own national day), but is traditionally eaten on Good Friday.
Other foods you’re likely to find during Mardi Gras are: oysters, beignets, pancakes, gumbos, bananas foster, jambalayas, étouffées, pralines, muffuletta sandwiches, red beans and rice, po’ boy sandwiches, and dirty rice.
Mardi Gras is known for its elaborate parades. You might be surprised to learn that the city of New Orleans isn’t the one in charge of putting on the parades!
Not all krewes participate in Mardi Gras parades, but many do. The ones that do are classified as parade krewes.
Each parading krewe has their own individual parade, with a theme that changes yearly. Some krewes keep their theme a secret until the day of the parade.
The cost and construction of the parade floats are the responsibility of each krewe. They are also responsible for providing their own throws (items tossed off parade floats as souvenirs).
Krewes rely on membership costs, donations, sales of krewe related merchandise, and fundraising to operate their parades.
There is an ordinance in New Orleans that prohibits the parade from becoming commercialized. No advertising, corporate or commercial signage or messages are allowed on the floats.
Facts about the krewes of Mardi Gras
Now that you know a little bit about what krewes are, let’s look at some facts about Mardi Gras krewes.
- In 1917 the krewe of Iris was created, and became the first all female krewe.
- The oldest black krewe, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, held its first parade in 1909.
- With other many krews thinking bigger is better, ‘Tit Rex has taken the opposite approach. They have miniature parade floats (each with a shoe box as a base), and hand out miniature throws!
- The krewe of Barkus, created in 1993 is the only canine parade krewe in New Orleans. They are a nonprofit that raises money for the adoption of homeless animals in New Orleans.
- The krewe of Barkus puts on a parade where each dog dressed according to the year’s theme and escorted by their human.
- The krewe of Tucks favors potty-humor. During their parade, their king rides on the float atop a toilet throne. Tucks krewe members pass out decorated toilet brushes and plungers as their signature throws.
Each krewe is vastly different. Celebrating the different krewes is one of the things that makes the Mardi Gras parades so much fun!
Mardi Gras parades history
Since each parade krewe krewe puts on their own parade, there are too many parades to fit into one day. The biggest Mardi Gras parades occur in the five days leading up to Mardi Gras.
Even though the biggest parades are in the last five days, you can find parades as early as January 6th (the first day of the Carnival season).
The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans was in 1837. But Mardi Gras parade floats didn’t appear in parades until 1857 when the Mystic Krewe of Comus debuted the first parade float.
Since 1857, the Mardi Gras parades have only been cancelled 14 times due mostly to wars and pandemics. Not even Hurricane Katrina could cancel the Mardi Gras parade.
The French Quarter suffered less damage than other areas in Hurricane Katrina’s wake, and New Orleans came together to rebuild in time for Mardi Gras to roll on without a hitch.
Mardi Gras parade facts
Now that you know a little bit of the Mardi Gras parades history, let’s go over some facts about Mardi Gras parades.
- During Mardi Gras, mayor gives the King of Carnival (called Rex) a key to the city.
- It’s illegal to ride on a parade float without wearing a Mardi Gras mask.
- Mardi Gras parades have been attended by royalty. In 1872, the Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia came to watch the Mardi Gras parade.
- The Mardi Gras parades sometimes overlap with the Super Bowl resulting in “Super Gras”.
- In 2013, when New Orleans hosted the Super Bowl they rearranged the parade schedule so no parades would conflict with the football game.
- Not all areas of the parade are family friendly, but if you happen to be on St Charles Avenue during Mardi Gras, you’ll see ladders set up with wooden boxes at the top for children to sit in during the parades.
- At midnight on Mardi Gras, New Orleans police officers (often accompanied by the Mayor) move through the crowds on Bourbon Street on horseback and on foot to signify the end of the Carnival period.
The Mardi Gras parades are very popular. Parade attendees line up hours in advance to claim their spots! Some people even rent out their balconies to people looking for a good spot to watch the parade.
Flambeaux Mardi Gras
If you’re watching the Mardi Gras parades, you may see people holding elaborate flaming torches called flambeaux. Historically, flambeau was a single wooden torch.
Now flambeaux consist of several oil burning lamps mounted to metal trays so the oil won’t drip down and hurt the people carrying them. This is still a dangerous job though; the flambeaux weighs roughly 70 pounds, and has several open flames on it.
The Mystic Krewe of Comus was the first krewe to introduce flambeaux to light the parade. When they first appeared in 1857, they were carried by enslaved men, and free men of color.
The flambeaux carriers, called “keepers of the light” would march in the parade with the torches. They would dance and twirl the torches, turning the task of lighting the parade into an art form.
Parade attendees would tip them as a sign of appreciation for lighting the parade, and also as gratitude for their performances. It is still common to see people passing tips, though the amount has evolved from coins to dollars.
With flambeaux’s history of racial discrimination and segregation, some view the continued practice of flambeaux as enforcing racial stereotypes. Others view it as an integral part of Mardi Gras and a family tradition, as many keepers of the light inherit their torches from family members.
Fact about Mardi Gras history
In the United States, the biggest Mardi Gras celebrations happen in New Orleans, however you may be interested to know that Mardi Gras is actually celebrated all over the world!
Here are some of our favorite facts about Mardi Gras history:
- In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII added Mardi Gras to the Gregorian calendar, making it an official Christian holiday.
- Historically, masks were worn to allow Mardi Gras attendees to conceal their identities and interact with people from all class levels.
- The Le Moyne brothers brought Mardi Gras to the United States from France. They came to defend France’s claim on the Louisiana Territory (which consists of modern day Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi).
- Approximately 1.4 million people show up annually for New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations.
- Mardi Gras brings roughly 1 billion dollars to the New Orleans economy, annually.
- Even though New Orleans seems to be synonymous with Mardi Gras, the first Mardi Gras in the United States actually occurred in Mobile, Alabama in 1699.
- Governor Warmoth from the Louisiana State Legislature signed the Mardi Gras Act of 1875, making Mardi Gras an official holiday in the state of Louisiana.
- In the early 1990s, Dorothy Mae Taylor (the first African American woman elected to the Louisiana Legislature) became known for her efforts to desegregate Mardi Gras.
Though Mardi Gras has evolved over the years, some of the traditions of Mardi Gras have remained since its inception.
History of Mardi Gras throws
During the Mardi Gras parade, you’ll see krewes throwing items off of their parade floats. Fittingly, these items are called “throws”.
The first Mardi Gras throws were from the krewe called the Twelfth Night Revelers in the early 1870s. A man dressed in a Santa Claus suit threw souvenirs to the crowd.
Some krewes have signature throws. These special, handmade, throws are coveted. Catching a signature throw is more rare than catching a regular throw.
Some of the regular throws are beads, stuffed animals, stuffed footballs, potato chips, light up trinkets, frisbees, spears, moon pies and plastic cups.
If you’re looking to catch a parade throw, yell “throw me something mister”. These four words have been used since throws first appeared, to indicate interest.
Facts about Mardi Gras throws
Now that you know what throws are, you’re ready for some facts about Mardi Gras throws.
- The plastic cups thrown during the Mardi Gras parades are called “New Orleans Dinnerware”.
- Zulu coconuts and Muses shoes are two of the most highly coveted signature parade throws.
- People will dress in costume and hold up signs in hopes to catch one of the special throws.
- Due to coconut related parade injuries in 1987 the krewe of Zulu had to stop passing out their iconic Zulu coconuts. However, in 1988 the Louisiana legislature passed bill SB188 to relieve the coconut from any injury liability.
- The doubloons thrown in today’s Mardi Gras parades are modeled after the krewe of Rex’s medallions that date back to 1884.
- The first Mardi Gras beads were made of glass and hand knotted onto necklaces. They were introduced in 1921 by the krewe of Rex.
- It is not traditional, required, or encouraged to flash in order to receive Mardi Gras beads or other throws. In fact, if you flash along the parade route you could get arrested!
Now that you know more about Mardi Gras throws, get ready to go and yell out “throw me something mister” to get your own beloved signature throws and Mardi Gras beads!
What happens to all those beads after Mardi Gras?
Since plastic beads are an inexpensive throw, krewes stock up on them so they have something to toss during the entirety of the parade.
You’ll see Mardi Gras beads hanging from trees like ornaments on a Christmas tree, and lining the wrought iron fences that flank the streets.
Every year 25 million pounds of beads are thrown during Mardi Gras. However, with that many beads being thrown, many end up as trash.
Mardi Gras produces roughly 1000 tons of trash per year – that’s the equivalent of two million pounds of trash!
In 2018, New Orleans was alarmed to find 93,000 pounds of Mardi Gras beads and trash in a five block stretch of storm drains. Before of the 2019 Mardi Gras parade, the city installed gutter buddies to keep the beads out of the storm drains.
New Orleans has also made efforts to recycle Mardi Gras beads. There are recycling bins for Mardi Gras beads on the parade route and donation centers to drop off Mardi Gras beads, year round.
In an effort to move to a more sustainable Mardi Gras, some krewes are replacing the common Mardi Gras plastic beads with compostable paper beads.
A company called Atlas beads employs Ugandan women to make Mardi Gras necklaces with beads created from recycled magazines.
Sustainable Mardi Gras throws
In addition to using more sustainable Mardi Gras beads, krewes are also putting an emphasis on finding other sustainable Mardi Gras throws in addition to the beads.
With the attention given to signature throws, it’s clear that parade attendees are interested in special, long lasting, souvenirs. These sustainable Mardi Gras throws are perfect for that purpose!
Some of the links below are affiliate links. I earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you if you purchase through an affiliate link.
- Instead of plastic cups, the krewe of Bacchus has begun throwing silicone wine glasses and other kitchen items like aprons and kitchen utensils.
- The Rex organization has begun throwing thin stainless steel cups instead of plastic ones.
- The krewe of Muses is offering “re-Musable” throws like reusable tote bags and shoe bags.
- Parades held in Metairie will include doubloons which can be traded in at over 60 participating establishments that offer discounts on everything from food items to work out classes.
- In addition to their signature sunglasses, the krewe of Iris also throws consumable throws from local vendors, like packages of coffee, bags of jambalaya mix and soap with biodegradable glitter made in the colors of Mardi Gras.
If you’re looking for ways to be more eco friendly and sustainable in your daily life, make sure to check out these 10 easy ways to protect the environment.
Colors of Mardi Gras facts
If you’ve ever been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, you’ve probably noticed the colors green, purple and gold in abundance.
This is because the official colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green and gold. In 1872, prior to the Grand Duke of Russia’s arrival, the krewe of Rex selected the official colors of Mardi Gras.
It wasn’t until 1892 when the Mardi Gras colors got their meanings during the Rex krewe’s parade, called “the Symbolism of Colors”.
During Mardi Gras, purple symbolizes justice, green represents faith, and gold symbolizes power. If you’re interested in the more in depth meanings of these colors, make sure you check out our guide to the colors of Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is not the only holiday that has a set of colors associated with it. In fact, every holiday has its own colors with special meanings!
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- All Saints’ Day – If you’re curious about the religious history behind other holidays, check out our post on All Saints’ Day.
- Halloween symbols – learn why black cats, ghosts, jack o lanterns, and spiders represent this holiday.
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About the author
Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.
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