Every year, more than 4 million people come from around the world to be part of what is often billed as the "greatest free party on earth" -- Mardi Gras. Beginning in January, the city of New Orleans starts a variety of festivities that culminate with Mardi Gras Day, or Fat Tuesday (falling this year on February 5) -- the day before Ash Wednesday and Lent. For about two weeks before Fat Tuesday, residents and visitors alike enjoy dozens of parades with wildly imaginative floats bearing outrageously costumed party-goers tossing colored beads into the screaming crowds. The parties continue into the night as revelers seek out distinctive "N'awlins" jazz and blues as well as Cajun and Creole food.
We've all heard of New Orleans' famous Bourbon Street and French Quarter, but many of us have no idea what Mardi Gras celebrates or why it's held when it is. And what's with the plastic beads tossed from floats to bystanders? King Cake, Boeuf Gras, doubloons -- what are these about? In this edition of How Stuff Works, we'll take a closer look at Mardi Gras, its origins and traditions. And we'll look at some ways to have fun family Mardi Gras celebrations both in New Orleans and at home!
What is Mardi Gras and What Does it Celebrate?
Considering the raucous nature of Mardi Gras, you might be surprised to learn that the festival has religious roots. Festivities start in New Orleans each year on Jan. 6, the Twelfth Night feast of the Epiphany -- the day, tradition has it, that the three kings first visited Jesus Christ (Yes...that's where we get the twelve days of Christmas).
Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday, is the day-long highlight of the season. While Mardi Gras most certainly has pagan, pre-Christian origins, the Roman Catholic Church legitimized the festival as a brief celebration before the penitential season of Lent. Mardi Gras Day, a legal holiday in New Orleans, is set to occur 46 days (the 40 days of Lent plus six Sundays) before Easter and can come as early as Feb. 3 or as late as March 9.
Mardi Gras is not new. There is evidence that it was being celebrated in New Orleans as early as the 18th century. Mardi Gras was first mentioned in North America in 1699 in the writings of French explorer Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville, who camped on the Mississippi River about 50 miles south of the present location of New Orleans. Knowing the date, March 3, was being celebrated as a holiday in his native France, he christened the site Point du Mardi Gras.
During the next century, the celebration of Mardi Gras included private masked balls and random street maskings in the cities of Mobile and New Orleans. By the 1820s, maskers on foot and in decorated carriages began to appear on Fat Tuesday, and in 1837 the first documented procession in New Orleans occurred, but it bore no resemblance to today's carnival.
When Was the First 'Modern' Mardi Gras?
In 1857, a group called the Mystik Krewe of Comus (more about krewes later!) staged the first modern-style Mardi Gras parade. The torchlit evening procession of floats illustrated themes from classical mythology and literature.
Following the American Civil War (1861 - 1865), many new krewes, or clubs, began offering additional parades and balls. The Krewe of Rex, organized in 1872, pioneered many innovations that became trademarks of New Orleans Mardi Gras. For example, Rex established the tradition of crowning a King of Carnival, selected the carnival colors (Purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power), and adopted the song "If Ever I Cease to Love" as a Mardi Gras anthem.
With occasional lapses caused by world wars, there has been an annual Mardi Gras celebration, complete with parades (about 2,000 in the past two centuries) and parties in New Orleans every year.
Today, Mardi Gras is one of the world's greatest tourist attractions, drawing millions from around the world for the days leading up to Fat Tuesday. Hotels in the metro area (particularly in the historic French Quarter) and restaurants (especially famous ones like The Commander's Palace and Emeril's) are booked months -- and even years -- in advance. All the jazz, blues and Dixieland bands in the state congregate in New Orleans to accompany the festivities on street corners and at bars, hotels, parties and fancy masked balls.
Economists estimate that Mardi Gras generates more than half a billion dollars for the local economy each year. Since no commercial or corporate sponsorships of Mardi Gras parades are permitted, it is the carnival club members who put on the show and foot the bill (Krewe members pay dues, ranging from $250 to $10000). There is no overall coordinator of Mardi Gras activities, and each club, or krewe, is completely autonomous.
Throw Me Something, Mister!
The most unique aspect of the Mardi Gras parade is related to its participatory nature. Normally intelligent, mature people have sheepishly admitted to becoming competitive -- and almost addicted -- to collecting the most throws from strategic positions along the streets. They stuff their bags -- brought for this purpose -- with doubloons, cups, beads and medallions (club embossed items are considered collectibles). Parades often become R-rated as onlookers go to extreme measures to get the attention of krewe members tossing favors from floats.