15 Tidbits About Mardi Gras That You Might Not Know

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Photo provided by mardigrasneworleans.com

Tuesday, February 21, 2023 marks the last day before the beginning of Lent with the celebration of Mardi Gras. It is a time when revelers “laissez les bon temps rouler” (pronounced lay-say le bon tom roo-lay), “let the good times roll.” It is a day of feasting before the austerity of the 40 days that lead up to Easter. 

With origins that can be traced back to Ancient Rome, Lent slowly developed within the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.  Now, it is an important religious observance for all Christians to observe and commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Before the abstentions of Lent, however, Mardi Gras offers feasting and wild celebrations, not only in New Orleans and other cities nearby in the United States, but it is celebrated in places around the world.

There are many stories about the antics of revelers in places like Rio de Janeiro, where there is dancing in the streets for a week – all day and long into the night.  

Here are 15 bits of information about the often-outrageous holiday. 

  1. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras actually begins at Epiphany, which is also known as “Twelfth Night.” It is the last day of the 12 days of Christmas. It is the day when the Three Kings visited Jesus, which is why it is also called “Three Kings Day.”
  2. Mardi Gras literally translates as “Fat Tuesday.” It is called Fat Tuesday because it is the last day that fatty foods are eaten according to Catholicism before being given up for the 40 days of lent. During the early days of Lent, those of the Catholic faith were expected to only eat one meal a day at 3:00 p.m. with no meat, fish or dairy. These days, most people just give up something they love like chocolate or coffee for 40 days to represent Christ’s sacrifice when he was wandering the desert and fighting the Devil during what is now Lent.  
  3. “Historians generally agree that the 40-day period before Easter, known as Lent, emerged shortly following the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Earliest observances of Lent seem to have focused particularly on the practice of fasting,” according to groundworkonline.com.
  4. According to Country Life magazine, “Historians believe Mardi Gras arrived in North America in 1699 and then spread to New Orleans in 1718. The Mistick Krewe of Comus was the first to roll floats about 60 miles from New Orleans in 1856. The Krewe of Rex was the first of the type of parade krewes we see today.”
  5. In other parts of the world, Mardi Gras is known as Carnival. The word “carnival” is derived from the Latin “carn-levare” which means to “put away flesh.”
  6. Venice, Italy is one of the best-known places for Carnival. There, residents dress in ornate masks and 17th-century clothing and parade through the street. This year it is celebrated from February 4 until February 21, 2023.
  7. It is illegal NOT to wear a mask on a New Orleans Mardi Gras float.
  8. Krewes, which are private groups in New Orleans and other areas in the South that have large Mardi Gras celebrations, coordinate the many parades during the season. The Mardi Gras season is the two weeks that lead up to Fat Tuesday. Older Krewes have the better parade days.
  9. Each Krewe has a different membership, route and theme. The oldest African American Krewe is Zulu. While other krewes throw beads from their floats, the Zulus are famous for throwing painted coconuts. Their most famous “king” was Louis Armstrong.
  10. Krewe Bacchus is best known for its celebrity “kings” and having their parade on the Sunday before Mardi Gras. Some of their kings have been Bob Hope, William Shatner, Hugh Laurie, Dick Clark and JK Simmons.
  11. King Cake, best known for the baby inside said to give the finder health and prosperity in the New Year, is not original to New Orleans. “It is said to have originated in Old World France and Spain and came to be associated with Epiphany during the Middle Ages,” according to eater.com
  12. The origin of King Cake has roots in an old Roman harvest festival called Saturnalia. In ancient times, fava beans were believed to be magical and also used for voting. Cakes were made to celebrate the harvest and, according to Larousse Gastronomique, “During the Saturnalia the “king of the day” was chosen by lot, using a bean concealed in a galette,” says scientificamerica.com.
  13. Mardi Gras colors all have meaning: Purple represents justice, green represents faith, and gold represents power. 
  14. Mardi Gras has its own lingo. The city of New Orleans even publishes an online dictionary for visitors. The most famous of these is “throws,” the beads and other items tossed from those riding floats.
  15. Mardi Gras in the French Quarter of New Orleans is NOT G-rated. While it is not a tradition, with the flow of liquor and the strip clubs along Bourbon Street, visitors will see women flashing their breasts and asking float riders to “Throw Me Something Mister.”