Technically speaking, Mardi Gras is only the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. After all, in French, “Mardi Gras” directly translates to “Fat Tuesday,” the final day of revelry before the 40 days of Lent begin. In 2022, Fat Tuesday is March 1.
But the festivities we often view as part of Mardi Gras actually run through several weeks and kick off on the 12th day of Christmas on January 6, known as Three Kings Day. In some parts of the world, particularly Brazil and Venice, the pre-Lenten period is better known as the Carnival season. “Carnival” is derived from the medieval Latin word “carnelevarium,” which means "to take away meat" and refers to the sacrifices that will be needed to be made during the upcoming fasting period.
The very thought of Mardi Gras elicits images of partygoers filling the streets as beaded necklaces get tossed around alongside wild costumes and raucous celebrations. Yet at its heart, it’s a Christian holiday, most popularly celebrated in countries where Roman Catholicism is practiced.
Mardi Gras’ roots run back thousands of years. Experts note its association with the fertility rites of the pagan spring, specifically the ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia, a mid-December holiday where gifts were offered to the gods during sowing season, and Lupercalia, an often violent festival on February 15 to ward off evil spirits. Once Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders combined the traditions and created the pre-Lenten season, which then spread throughout Europe. In anticipation of fasting during Lent, it was a time of indulgence in every way and included eating all the food that would soon have to be avoided.
The first American Mardi Gras is believed to have been celebrated on March 3, 1699, when French Canadian explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville threw a small party at a camp they named “Point du Mardi Gras,” about 60 miles from where New Orleans, Louisiana was later established in 1718.
While New Orleans is the U.S. city most closely associated with the holiday today, Mobile, Alabama claims the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the nation, though theories vary as to why. Most say it’s simply because Point du Mardi Gras is located in what is now Mobile, which was established in 1702. But another explanation is a bit more involved — and involves an entirely different celebration..
Despite the party thrown by the French explorers at the end of the 17th century, some consider the first New World celebration to have been in Mobile in 1703, even though it took place on New Year’s Eve. “Sometimes I jokingly say ‘[Mobile] had it first, but [New Orleans] told them where to put it,'” Mardi Gras Guide author Arthur Hardy told Time. “The men who started the first Mardi Gras organization in New Orleans were from Mobile, and they actually borrowed [traditions from] Mobile’s Mardi Gras-style parade.”
But it was in New Orleans under French rule in the early 18th century where the famed galas were held. Revelers even wore masks so they could truly indulge without being recognized or shamed. When the Spanish took over in the latter half of the 18th century, the traditions were hushed. However, once Louisiana became a state in 1812, it opened the door to jump-start the festivities again.
Introducing the Krewes
While the fancy galas came back in 1823, they were often reserved for the elite who could score invites to the exclusive balls. But in 1827, a group of students who had experienced the Parisian Carnival celebrations, filled with costumes and dancing in the streets, brought that style of revelry to New Orleans.
It didn’t catch on immediately. By about 1850, interest in the festivities had started to wane, until the introduction of secret Carnival societies known as “krewes.” The Mistick Krewe of Comus kicked off the first parade in 1857, complete with a torch-led procession and costumed partygoers. The founders of the society had been members of Mobile’s Cowbellion de Rakin Society and resourcefully upcycled the floats from the New Year’s Eve parade 55 days earlier.
The celebration was an instant hit and set the precedent for how Mardi Gras is celebrated in the city today. After nine years with only one krewe, more started to form: The Twelfth Night Revelers started in 1870, Rex and Momus in 1872, and Proteus in 1882. And the growth was tremendous. A 1948 issue of Time said that there were 16 krewes in 1928 and 49 by 1948.
One of the most popular is the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a Black krewe that officially made its debut in 1909. Every year, it designates a king, with the most famous being Louis Armstrong in 1949. Nowadays, there are hundreds of krewes that represent all kinds of interests and groups and host dozens of Mardi Gras parties each season.
A Legal Holiday
Mardi Gras quickly became such a crucial part of New Orleans culture that it was established as a legal state holiday under the Mardi Gras Act of 1875.
As with any holiday, the traditions have grown and evolved over time. Perhaps one of the most popular is the throwing of beads (originally glass, they're now mostly plastic). But beads are actually just one of the many kinds of “throws” that float riders toss out along the parade routes. Among the most coveted items are coconuts from the Zulu krewe (now no longer thrown for safety issues), gold coins from the Rex krewe, and purses from the Nix krewe. For the best chance at scoring one, crowd members should follow tradition and shout out, “Throw me something, mister!”
During Russian Grand Duke Alexis’ visit in 1872, the Rex krewe chose bead colors that honored his royal house colors, which are now the official colors of Mardi Gras — purple representing justice, green for faith, and gold for power.
The King Cake
Another Mardi Gras tradition is indulging in food that can’t be touched during Lent. While Cajun and Creole staples like jambalaya and gumbo are popular, there’s no food more synonymous with Mardi Gras than the king cake. King cake is traditionally first served on January 6 in honor of Three Kings Day — when the three wise men brought gifts to baby Jesus in Bethlehem on the 12th night of Christmas — and will make an appearance on the table several times throughout the celebration period. The ring-shaped cake is made of sweet dough that’s twisted, often topped with frosting and colorful sugar, usually in Mardi Gras colors.
But its most famous feature is a plastic baby Jesus hidden somewhere inside the cake. While it’s believed to have started with a bean — and later a pecan and then a ring — the New Orleans bakery McKenzie’s popularized the plastic Jesus in the 1940s, when a traveling salesman had an excess of little French porcelain dolls and sold them to the bakery to bake into the cakes.
Keeping safety top of mind, the bakery cleared it with the health department first — and when they ran out of the porcelain ones, they turned to a local importer for the plastic ones used today. (Nowadays, they’re given separately to customers to insert into the cake themselves.)
While enjoying the cake, the lucky person who finds the baby Jesus is crowned the king or queen of the ball. And in some circles, they’re also then given the responsibility of bringing the next cake or throwing a party, to ensure that the Mardi Gras celebrations will continue for years to come.