Mardi Gras in New Orleans: Party Time Before Lent
New Orleans is well-known for their tourist destinations, but it just might be the annual Mardi Gras celebration that the city is most famous for.
Mardi Gras is the last big bash before Lent begins, with parades and events from January 6 through Fat Tuesday – a state holiday since 1875. If you love a good party and Cajun culture, Mardi Gras should definitely be on your dream travel list!
Origins and Traditions
This rowdy party and series of parades has its origins in the Medieval years in Europe. It grew from a mix of Catholic traditions, French celebration, African music and even masquerade.
The first Mardi Gras in New Orleans was in 1699 and was nothing like the celebration of today – celebrants gathered around a campfire. It wasn’t until the mid 1700s that the traditions we recognize as Mardi Gras celebration essentials were established.
One of the most sought after souvenirs of Mardi Gras is the famous string of beads. These inexpensive multicolored plastic bead strings were once a bit more expensive- the beads were made of glass. The beads thrown from parade floats on and before Fat Tuesday are typically in a color palette close to the traditional gold, green and purple of Mardi Gras. Other trinkets are also tossed from parade floats.
History notes that Rex, King of Carnival, selected the traditional color palette in 1872 and assigned specific meanings to each color: purple represents justice, gold signifies power, and green symbolizes faith.
The European tradition of masquerade is now a popular part of Mardi Gras celebrations – it’s a great thrill to become relatively anonymous in those giant party crowds. Not only that, but the anonymity means that individuals of multiple classes can mix and mingle without fear, anxiety or repercussion.
King Cake and the Baby
A recognizable fixture, and sweet Mardi Gras treat is the King Cake. This ring of cinnamon streaked dough can be filled or plain cake. It is typically topped with a sweet glaze and covered in sprinkles in the Mardi Gras palette of bright green, purple and gold (or yellow).
It also includes a little surprise. Somewhere inside the King Cake, a small plastic baby has been baked inside. The small plastic baby in the cake tradition dates back to New Orleans’ baker Donald Entringer, who saw small pink plastic babies in a store and got permission from the health department to bake the babies inside his cakes for Mardi Gras. The small plastic baby is meant to symbolize the baby Jesus.
Mardi Gras runs from January 6, a date known as the Epiphany, through the day before Lent. The day before the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, is commonly known as Fat Tuesday and can be anywhere in the calendar from Feb. 3 to March 9.
Mardi Gras Around the U.S.
If you can’t make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, have no fear. Put it on your list for next year, and find a local celebration. There are many larger cities and towns that throw Mardi Gras celebrations, with house parties, parades and other elements of celebration.