Mardi Gras is almost here. Before you head out to the parades, let’s learn about the Mardi Gras symbols, and why they represent the holiday!
I’m sure if you listed the first things that come to mind when you hear the words Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, or Carnival, you’d name several of the Mardi Gras symbols!
Every holiday has symbols that are associated with it, and Mardi Gras is no different. These things represent the history of the holidays, and knowing their meanings can help you celebrate all aspects of a given holiday.
What is Mardi Gras?
While contemporarily known for its parties and parades, Mardi Gras (also known as Fat Tuesday) is actually a religious Christian holiday.
Several of the Mardi Gras symbols tie directly to the religious meaning of Mardi Gras, so to understand the symbols, we need to understand the religious context of Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras celebrates the conclusion of the Carnival season, which begins on January 6th and ends with Mardi Gras.
January 6th is known as Epiphany. It is the Christian feast day that marks the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Also known as Three Kings Day, it celebrates the day the three wise men were led to the baby Jesus.
Unlike most holidays that have a fixed date, the date of Mardi Gras changes every year. It always falls the Tuesday before Lent begins.
Mardi Gras is a day of partying and feasting before entering the penitential season of Lent, which honors the 40 days and nights Jesus spent in the desert resisting the temptations of Satan.
Some people celebrate the religious aspects of Mardi Gras, and some people do not. No matter how you celebrate, you’re sure to have seen some of the Mardi Gras symbols during your festivities.
What are the Mardi Gras symbols?
If you guessed that beads are a symbol of Mardi Gras, you’d be correct! They’re one of the more recognizable symbols, always appearing in abundance during Mardi Gras.
There are seven main Mardi Gras symbols. They are Mardi Gras parades, beads, colors, Mardi Gras throws, masks, the fleur de lis and king cakes.
During Carnival you’re bound to see many of these symbols! People sometimes refer to the entire Carnival season as Mardi Gras, but Mardi Gras is technically only one day, the Tuesday before Lent.
Even though Mardi Gras is only one day, you are likely to see many of these symbols during the entire Carnival period.
Since New Orleans is known for its Mardi Gras celebrations, many of these Mardi Gras symbols also New Orleans symbols!
Mardi Gras parade
One of the most interactive Mardi Gras symbols is the Mardi Gras parade. Social organizations called krewes (pronounced: crews) put on the parades and make parade floats.
The krewes that participate in the Mardi Gras parade choose their own parade theme. Each krewe’s parade has a different theme.
It is not a requirement for krewes to participate in the Mardi Gras parade, but many do! Some krewes walk the parade, and others ride on elaborately decorated floats.
The last five days leading up to Mardi Gras have the most krewes parading, but if you check the Mardi Gras parade schedules you can find parades as early as January 6th (Epiphany).
History of Mardi Gras throws
Spectators gather to marvel at the parade floats and catch “throws”. Mardi Gras throws are exactly what they sound like; they’re items tossed off of Mardi Gras parade floats.
The first Mardi Gras throws were started by a krewe called the Twelfth Night Revelers in the early 1870s. After their Mardi Gras parade themed “Mother Goose’s Tea Party” a man wearing a Santa Claus suit handed out gifts to onlookers.
After that, other krewes started making their own throws to toss off the Mardi Gras parade floats to eager parade attendees.
Mardi Gras throws have evolved over the years, but no matter what they are, people always gather around in hopes to catch a treasure! They are not only a fun souvenir, but also one of the Mardi Gras symbols!
If you’re at a Mardi Gras parade and want to get a throw you can yell out “throw me something mister!”, as people have done for decades in hopes of getting a throw.
Mardi Gras beads meaning
One of the most common parade throws are Mardi Gras beads. A krewe called the Rex Organization introduced these beaded necklaces in 1921.
When they were first introduced, the beads were made of glass and hand knotted on necklaces. Though they began as glass, most of the Mardi Gras beads you see thrown today are made of plastic.
However every now and then, you’ll find someone handing out glass beads; they’re a real treat! The introduction of plastic Mardi Gras beads allowed krewes to stock up on a higher quantity of parade throws.
While they may not be as nice as glass beads, the plastic necklaces are less expensive, and ensure that more people walk away with one of the most recognizable Mardi Gras symbols when the parade is over.
There are a wide variety of beads at Mardi Gras. Most krewes toss out Mardi Gras beads, and some krewes even have their own custom beads (in the colors of their krewe) to represent them.
The more traditional Mardi Gras beads were in the colors of Mardi Gras. Each color of beads has its own meaning!
Colors of Mardi Gras
The first Mardi Gras beads passed out were purple, green and gold. These three colors are the traditional colors of Mardi Gras.
During the Mardi Gras parade in 1872, the krewe of Rex assigned Mardi Gras its colors. Twenty years later in 1892, the Rex krewe threw a parade called “the Symbolism of Colors”.
It was then that the Rex krewe gave the colors of Mardi Gras their own individual meanings, as they relate to Mardi Gras. Purple means justice, green means faith and gold means power.
Check out our guide with everything you need to know about the colors of Mardi Gras to learn each of the colors in depth meanings, history, why they were chosen and how they became one of the Mardi Gras symbols!
Mardi Gras isn’t the only holiday represented by a set of colors with special meanings. If this topic interests you make sure to check out our posts on the color of Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day to learn more.
What are the best Mardi Gras throws
While Mardi Gras beads are the most common Mardi Gras throw, they are not the most coveted. The most prized Mardi Gras throws are the “signature throws” that some krewes make and give out.
Each krewe with a signature throw is known for that particular throw, and gives them out year after year. They are collectors items, unlike the common, non-signature Mardi Gras throws like beads.
In addition to Mardi Gras beads, some other non-signature throws that you might expect to find at Mardi Gras are: plastic cups (referred to as “New Orleans Dinnerware”), stuffed animals, stuffed footballs, spears, frisbees, moon pies, bags of potato chips, light up trinkets, and more!
The most coveted of all Mardi Gras throws are the Zulu coconuts. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a traditionally black krewe, has been passing out coconuts since 1910.
In 1910, the krewe went to a local French market and bought a sack of coconuts to throw during the Mardi Gras parade. The coconuts were tossed to the crowd in their natural state, undecorated and covered in coconut coir (the “hair” on the outside of the coconut).
Over time, the coconuts were shaved and decorated. To this day, each coconut is hand painted and decorated, making them a coveted Mardi Gras symbol.
In the beginning, the coconuts were painted either silver and black or gold and black (the colors of the Zulu krewe). However, now you will see elaborate coconut paintings with glitter and embellishments.
In 1987, the krewe of Zulu had to temporarily stop passing out coconuts, because they were unable to get insurance due to the risk of coconut related parade injuries.
However, they resumed passing out the iconic Zulu coconuts in 1988 when the Louisiana legislature passed a bill called SB188, nicknamed the “Coconut Bill”. This bill excluded the coconut from any liability for injuries sustained while coconuts were passed out during Mardi Gras.
Today, coconuts are passed by hand into the crowd, instead of being thrown. In addition to the coconuts being shaved, they are also drained and have the coconut meat removed lowering their weight from several pounds down to several ounces.
As the Zulu coconuts are one of the most prized Mardi Gras symbols, it’s wonderful that these changes have allowed Zulu coconuts to still be passed out during Mardi Gras parades.
Like the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, The krewe of Muses has their own signature throw. Every year the Muses pass out elaborate, hand decorated, high heel shoes to Mardi Gras parade attendees.
In Greek mythology, the Muses are the nine daughters of Greek god Zeus (king of the gods, and god of sky, thunder and lightning), and Greek goddess Mnemosyne (goddess of memory).
According to Greek mythology, the Muses are goddesses of many art forms, such as poetry, dance and music. It is no wonder the modern day krewe of Muses has chosen such an artistic throw to represent them!
The Muses shoes are passed out as single shoes, each one taking hours to decorate. They are thought of as collectors items from the Mardi Gras parade.
Just like the Zulu coconuts, these items have become more elaborately decorated over time. If you manage to catch one during a Mardi Gras parade, you’ll be headed home with one of the special Mardi Gras symbols.
Another all female krewe, the Mystic Krewe of Nyx (pronounced: nicks), also produces a hand decorated signature throw. Their signature Mardi Gras throws are hand decorated Nyx purses.
Each Nyx purse has the word “Nyx” and the year of the parade embellished somewhere on the item, so the recipient can always see when they received this throw, which is one of recognizable Mardi Gras symbols.
This Mystic Krewe of Nyx is also named after a Greek goddess. Their namesake goddess, Nyx, is the goddess of the night.
In 1884, the Rex Organization began using medallions as signature throws. The medallions had a different image on each side. One side contained the parade’s theme, and the other showed the Rex Organization’s emblem.
In 1959, H. Alvin Sharpe approached the krewe of Rex with an idea. He suggested that the krewe could replace their medallions with lightweight aluminum doubloons.
The new, lighter doubloons would be easy to produce in larger quantities, so the Rex captain that year (Darwin Fenner) ordered 83,000 doubloons from Sharpe.
By the 1970s, many krewes had followed suit and created their own doubloons, each of which represented their own krewe.
They’re a great Mardi Gras symbol to take home, because they’re small, lightweight. They don’t take up too much space, so you can build a collection of them that grows every year!
Other signature throws
While the Zulu coconuts, Muses shoes, Nyx purses and Rex doubloons are more widely recognized signature throws, there are also other krewes with signature Mardi Gras throws too!
The krewe of Carrollton is known for their hand decorated shrimp boots. Shrimp boots are typically white rubber boots work by shrimpers (shrimp fisherman). However, the shrimp boots being passed out by the krewe of Carrollton are much more colorful!
The krewe of Iris, one of the oldest all female krewes (established in 1917) has signature hand painted and decorated sunglasses as their signature throw.
The krewe of Alla, founded in 1932, has hand painted genie lamps as their signature throw. Like the other hand painted and decorated signature Mardi Gras throws, these genie lamps take time and hard work to create!
The krewe of Tucks is named after Friar Tuck; a now-closed bar in New Orleans. The krewe possesses an irreverent sense of humor. They hand out toilet themed throws, like hand decorated plungers and toilet brushes. Their float even features a toilet throne for their king!
No matter which krewes signature throw you have your eye on, any one you’d be able to catch is one of the more special Mardi Gras symbols, because they’re not commercially produced like other throws are.
History of Mardi Gras masks
If you find yourself in New Orleans, watching the Mardi Gras parade, you’ll see many people wearing Mardi Gras masks. You may be surprised to find out that wearing masks is one of the original Mardi Gras traditions.
The Mardi Gras mask history dates back to the very first Mardi Gras celebrations. Mardi Gras attendees wore masks, because it concealed their identity.
It allowed attendees of all classes distinctions to mingle freely with each other. Since no one knew who was behind the mask, it gave everyone an ability to talk with each other.
Though not worn for the same purpose in modern times, the feeling of anonymity does offer a sense of freedom and mystery, which adds to the excitement of Mardi Gras.
To this day, parade float riders in New Orleans are legally required to wear Mardi Gras masks. Requiring float riders to wear masks honors the history of Mardi Gras masks.
Though they are one of the more historic Mardi Gras symbols, masking during holidays is not a new concept. Other holidays and festivals (like Samhain, Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day) incorporate the use of masks and costumes conceal identities.
If you think Mardi Gras masks are as cool as we do, and are looking for a fun Mardi Gras activity to do with your kids, make sure you check out the Mardi Gras coloring page at the bottom of this post.
Meaning of the fleur de lis
Let’s look as the history and meaning of the fleur de lis symbol to see how it connects to New Orleans and Mardi Gras.
As lilies are one of the flowers that represent the Virgin Mary (along with roses), the fleur de lis is a symbol of the Virgin Mary. The fleur de lis also carries other religious meaning, symbolizing the holy trinity and other saints.
The fleur de lis is an ancient symbol that was commonly used in heraldry, and has been found in artifacts from many different cultures. France has a long history of using the fleur de lis symbol.
New Orleans fleur de lis
Since the symbol held deep meaning in France, the fleur de lis was depicted on the French monarchy’s royal coat of arms, and has appeared in many places French settlers colonized, New Orleans included.
In 1682 France claimed the Louisiana territory, and 17 years later, in 1699 French settlers created the city of New Orleans (named for the French Duke of Orleans). Even during the 40 years of Spanish rule, New Orleans held on to its French traditions.
On July 9, 2008 the state’s governor, Bobby Jindal, signed a bill which made the fleur de lis the official symbol of Louisiana. It is used to represent the Louisiana’s football team, the New Orleans Saints.
The fleur de lis is pictured on the flags of several cities in Louisiana. New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette all depict a fleur de lis on their flags.
Mardi Gras fleur de lis
During Mardi Gras, the fleur de lis is commonly used as a Mardi Gras parade throw. It is one of the Mardi Gras symbols often attached to beaded necklaces and can be found on various Mardi Gras souvenirs.
Throughout history, the fleur de lis was largely depicted in the color gold. However, during the Carnival season, you can find a multi-colored (purple, green and gold) Mardi Gras fleur de lis.
Since the fleur de lis was used to represent the royal family of France, it’s no surprise that the krewes of Mardi Gras adopted this symbol.
Many krewes crown their own kings and queens, and use the fleur de lis symbol to represent their royalty. The fleur de lis symbol is frequently depicted in the decor of Mardi Gras balls, and on parade floats.
Mardi Gras foods
The most delicious of all the Mardi Gras symbols, is the Mardi Gras food! You’re likely to find all the classic New Orleans dishes during Mardi Gras, but there are some dishes that are special to this time of the year.
Mardi Gras foods you’re likely to find for desserts are: beignets, bananas foster, pralines and the symbolic king cake.
What is a king cake?
The king cake (also called the three kings cake) is one of the most delicious Mardi Gras foods. It is also one of the Mardi Gras symbols that has a religious background.
Different countries have regional variations on their king cakes which include not only how they are made, but when they are served.
In the United States king cakes are typically served during the entire Carnival season, from Epiphany (January 6th) until Mardi Gras (the Tuesday before Lent begins).
Though you can find king cakes during other times of the year in the United States, they were traditionally only served during the Carnival period, with greatest frequency on the day of Mardi Gras.
King cakes (in the United States) have a texture similar to brioche, but taste sweeter. They are formed in a circle, with a hole in the center.
The dough is cinnamon flavored, and king cakes are often topped with lots of icing and sprinkles in the colors of Mardi Gras (purple, gold and green).
Why is there a baby in a king cake?
The most notable feature of a king cake is a baby in the dough! Traditionally king cakes had a porcelain baby baked into the cake.
However, in more recent times, plastic babies have been used instead, as they are less costly, and easier for bakers to find.
The baby in the king cake represents the baby Jesus. When the king cake is cut, everyone is hoping to get the slice with the baby.
Whoever receives the slice of king cake with the baby inside is dubbed “king” or “queen” for the night.
Getting the baby from the king cake means the person will have good luck, fortune and prosperity throughout the year.
Since receiving the slice of king cake with the baby inside indicates that the person will have a prosperous year, the duty of hosting the next year’s Mardi Gras party and supplying the next king cake falls to that person.
In very recent times, some bakers have begun putting the babies on the outside of the cake to avoid choking hazards. However, traditionally it was always baked into the king cake.
Mardi Gras drinks
Just as there are traditional Mardi Gras foods, there are also traditional and commonly found Mardi Gras drinks! These speciality cocktails can be found year round in New Orleans, but especially during Mardi Gras.
If you find yourself in New Orleans during Carnival, you’re sure to run across Hurricanes. This rum based cocktail originated in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1940s.
You’re also likely to see a lot of Sazeracs, nicknamed “America’s first cocktail”. Apothecary owner Antione Peychaud created this cocktail recipe in his apothecary in 1838.
The Sazerac has changed over the years – it started out as a brandy cocktail, and then morphed into a whiskey cocktail.
In the French Quarter, there’s a place called the Sazerac House, that in offers informative tours with complementary samples, and various spirit workshops.
Facts about Mardi Gras symbols
Add to your knowledge of Mardi Gras symbols by checking out these facts about Mardi Gras symbols below. Some may surprise you!
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- Mardi Gras literally translates from French to mean “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi means Tuesday, and gras means fat).
- In more recent times, women have flashed their chests for Mardi Gras beads, but this is not a required or traditional way to get beads.
- With Mardi Gras producing millions of pounds of trash every year (a lot of which ends up in storm drains), many krewes are making an effort to go green and swap out plastic items for more reusable ones. Some krewes are swapping out plastic cups for reusable stainless steel cups and silicone wine glasses. Other krewes are using biodegradable beads.
- The fleur de lis is not only a recognizable Mardi Gras symbol, but also the official symbol of the state of Louisiana.
- Mardi Gras parade float riders are legally required to wear Mardi Gras masks.
- The person who gets the slice of king cake with the baby inside is responsible for throwing the next year’s Mardi Gras party, and providing the next king cake.
If you’ve enjoyed learning about Mardi Gras, make sure to check out our post with over 100 facts about Mardi Gras to learn more!
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If you enjoyed learning about the Mardi Gras symbols, be sure to also check out these posts to learn more fun facts and history about some of your favorite things!
- Who is Cupid? – Want to learn why Cupid is a symbol of Valentine’s Day? Head to the post to see how Cupid evolved from a troublemaker to a symbol of true love.
- All Saint’s Day – If you enjoyed learning the religious history of Mardi Gras, make sure you check out our guide to All Saint’s Day, another religious holiday with a fascinating history.
- Chinese zodiac signs – The Chinese zodiac is represented by twelve animals (the ox, the pig, the tiger, the rabbit, etc). Head to the post to find out what animal represents the year you were born and how the Chinese zodiac came to be.
- History of Gingerbread – Gingerbread is so much more than a tasty Christmas cookie – historically it was a superstitious way to attract a husband. Visit the post to learn more.
Don’t forget to check out our fun facts section to learn interesting information on the holidays, and the history, traditions and symbols behind them!
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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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