Beginning after the feast day of Epiphany and extending up to the day before Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras, the French phrase translating Fat Tuesday, is a festival of epic proportions. The famous event is recognized the world over for its rich decadence, the use of bright colors and costumes, and the lively spirit of the festivities. But Mardi Gras is a tradition steeped in history, with a culture running much deeper than cheap masks and plastic beads. It is a custom intertwined with the soul of New Orleans, Louisiana – a permanent connection to its French past, with a personality that’s all its own.
Mardi Gras began in Europe as a phenomenon known as Carnival, a tradition that contains a legacy involving centuries of history and is now practiced in multiple countries all over the world. It has its beginnings in Catholicism, as the main festivities occur before the religious season of Lent – a period of time, the forty days before Easter, dedicated to a degree of fasting. During Lent, participating individuals refrain from partaking in meat, fatty foods, sugar, alcohol, and many other things that are seen as excess, decadence. It is a time of denying the body in recognition of the forty days that Christ spent in scarcity while wandering in the wilderness.
So, Mardi Gras celebrations, culminating in the iconic Fat Tuesday, is the time of celebration before the time of scarcity. And in the United States, the tradition is most prominent in cities with a predominantly French heritage – the most famous being in the southern part of Louisiana: New Orleans.
Lasting for a duration of approximately two weeks, the season of Mardi Gras is a time for ornate parades, balls, and feasting. These various celebrations come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
Fat Tuesday: The Day Before Ash Wednesday
The Mardi Gras parades are one of the most widely recognized portion of the the festival season. They are arranged by professional groups, known as “krewes,” who build magnificent floats and drive them through the French Quarter during the festivities. During the parades the krewes offer a number of items to the crowds, known as “throws,” the most popular being chocolate coins, plastic beads in an assortment of colors (typically purple, green, and gold), cups, amongst other trinkets. The colors repeatedly used throughout the ceremonies symbolize justice (purple), power (gold), and faith (green).
Another popular custom which occurs in New Orleans during Mardi Gras are parties known as Masquerade Balls. One of the most iconic examples of Mardi Gras culture, apart from the ubiquitous Mardi Gras beads, is the Carnival Mask. During these soirées, guests adorn themselves in richly decorated costumes, accented by a mask covering their faces. It is a tradition that has its origins in 16th century Venice with their own version of Carnival.
One of the unusual traditions of Fat Tuesday is the integration of the “King Cake” Party. The King Cake is an immensely sweet ring, usually made from twisted brioche dough, decorated with food dye in the typical Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold, and green. In spite of its extraordinary appearance, the custom of the King Cake has one more hidden surprise: there is a trinket of some variety, meant to represent baby Jesus, baked into the cake. And the person who has the honor of finding this token gains a number majority of special privileges and/or obligations – one of which being that this person will be the host of the Mardi Gras “King Cake” Party the following year.
During Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street, in New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, is teeming with people, both religious and not, there to enjoy this unique springtime tradition. The holiday has been celebrated in the region since 1857 and became a legal state holiday 18 years later in 1875. People from all over the United States, and the world, come to Southern Louisiana to experience this unique culture, and to take part in the incredible festival. It’s a grandiose experience, notorious for being a time of letting loose, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and feasting for days. It is a joyous time, a celebration of European heritage, and of the uninhibited human spirit.
Outside of New Orleans, the most widely celebrated Fat Tuesday festival is found in Brazil, in Rio De Janeiro’s Carnival.