The Biggest Tuesday of the Year
by Kasey Mathews | published Feb. 8th, 2021
Mardi Gras is well-known for its celebrations. But where did it all come from? Festivals of this scale don’t just pop up out of the blue. The story of Mardi Gras is more than just a party, though the party is the central theme.
What Is Mardi Gras?
If you’ve spent any time in the Southern U.S., you’re likely familiar with Mardi Gras. Despite getting its American start in Mobile, Ala., the celebration today is most associated with New Orleans, La.
The celebration has its roots in Catholicism. Mardi Gras — or “Fat Tuesday” — marks the final day before Lent, a 40-day season of repentance and fasting that ends at Easter. Thus, Mardi Gras is the last day Catholics are able to eat and drink whatever they please until Easter.
But New Orleans's Mardi Gras is unique. According to fourth year Industrial Design student Evie Crouch, this is due to the culmination of many different traditions and cultures.
“It’s a combination of the European [influence] and everything else — from Africa; from South America. All that has kind of conglomerated into the history of the city,” Crouch, a New Orleans native, said. “And because you have all the melding of cultures, they all have their own festivals and they all combined to make this festival.”
"And because you have all the melding of cultures ... they all combined to make this festival."
A Unique Flavor
New Orleans is a rich epicenter of culture in the American South, though parades have been banned from the French Quarter of the city since 1973. The narrow streets and historical buildings don’t lend themselves well to modern parade floats or crowds, so the various parades usually end just short of the French Quarter.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t venture into the Quarter, though! Famous for its Spanish architecture and those iron balconies, New Orleans’s French Quarter is the epicenter of Mardi Gras and the city itself.
Running straight through the center of the Quarter is Bourbon Street, lined with bars and restaurants — some tourist-centric and others rich with decades or even centuries of history.
Be sure to stop by a shop and pick up a king cake with friends or family, too. The brioche braids covered in cinnamon and icing are a staple of the Mardi Gras season. And hidden inside is a small plastic baby. According to Crouch, whoever finds it will have good luck — but they’re also in charge of buying the next king cake.
Finally, the only thing New Orleans may be more famous for than Mardi Gras is its food.
“One of the things that I like most about this city and that I miss most often is the food because it’s so flavorful, it’s so different,” Crouch said. “One of my favorite memories is everyone as a family outside with a big tarp laid out ... and just a pile of crawfish, potatoes and corn. It’s delicious.”
A Unique Festivity
As Crouch described before, Mardi Gras is a melding of many different traditions. This can be best seen in the various parades of the season.
Each parade is organized by a krewe. These krewes first developed as secret societies in the mid-1800s, typically for wealthy men. Nowadays, there are krewes for everyone, with their main purpose being to host a Mardi Gras parade or a ball, sometimes both!
The Mistick Krewe of Comus is largely seen as the krewe at the very top of the Mardi Gras hierarchy. With its first celebration in 1857, Comus was responsible for many mainstays in Mardi Gras tradition, including the parades themselves, as well as the corresponding balls. While Comus no longer parades, they still host an annual invite-only Mardi Gras ball for its members and esteemed guests.
Another old krewe, the Rex Organization is considered “King of the Carnival.”
Second only in stature to Comus in Mardi Gras tradition, they've arguably introduced even more traditions. It was Rex that introduced Mardi Gras’s official colors — green, gold and purple. Watch for Rex’s gold doubloons, as they’re a highly sought after “throw” during parades. Mardi Gras celebrations officially end when the Rex — the king — arrives by invitation to the Comus ball during the "Meeting of the Courts."
The Krewe of Zulu has had a complicated history, but has become one of the most significant krewes in the city. Local legend states that after seeing a skit entitled “There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me” about the African Zulu tribe in 1909, a group of laborers retreated into their meeting place and came out as Zulus. However, talks with older members of the krewe seem to indicate that it got its start first as a Benevolent Aid Society — a sort of local insurance program for Black residents. Even now, this krewe is often known as the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Their signature throw, the Zulu coconut, may be the most coveted throw in all of Mardi Gras.
“Throw me something, mister!”
Some Rules To Follow
Mardi Gras has a reputation for being an anything goes-style celebration, but every festival needs some rules.
To start, Mardi Gras is actually a very family-friendly event. While everyone seems to have heard some story or another about a wild Mardi Gras trip, the parades especially are heavily policed, as families gather up and down the parade routes for a fun day.
Although drinking is okay, participants still need to mind their sobriety levels to ensure they are acting lawfully. No saving your spot either! Spots along the route are on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Moreover, there is quite a bit of etiquette around the parades themselves. Because each parade is so different, and organized by different krewes, certain parades have certain “good throws.” However, you should never steal one of these throws from another. Paraders will make eye contact with you or other gestures to indicate they are throwing their goods to you.
Likewise, if a throw is missed, it’s best to not chase after it. Not only are the streets dirty after several parades and parties, but getting in the way of a parade float can leave you seriously hurt.
To increase your chances of getting a throw, Crouch recommends shouting a phrase you’re likely to hear throughout Mardi Gras: “Throw me something, mister!”
At its core, Mardi Gras is a celebration of celebrations. All you need to remember is “laissez les bon temps rouler” — let the good times roll!