Mardi Gras, also known as Shrove Tuesday or Carnival, is an annual festival marking the final day before the Christian fast of Lent, a 40-day period of self-denial and abstinence from merrymaking. Mardi Gras is the last opportunity for revelry and indulgence in food and drink before the temperance of Lent. The term Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”. The date of Mardi Gras varies from year to year, always falling between February 3 and March 9.
Although Mardi Gras refers to a specific day, the term often encompasses a much longer period of celebrations leading up to Mardi Gras Day. The Carnival season is marked by spectacular parades featuring floats, pageants, elaborate costumes, masked balls, and dancing in the streets. Some scholars have noted similarities between modern Mardi Gras celebrations and Lupercalia, a fertility festival held each February in ancient Rome. However, modern Carnival traditions developed in Europe during the Middle Ages (5th century to the 15th century) as part of the ritual calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. Today pre-Lenten Carnivals are celebrated predominantly in Roman Catholic communities in Europe and the Americas. Cities famous for their celebrations include Nice, France; Cologne, Germany; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. New Orleans, Louisiana, holds the most famous Mardi Gras celebration in the United States. Residents of New Orleans have been celebrating Mardi Gras since the 18th century. Mobile, Alabama, has a lesser known but equally old Mardi Gras tradition.
Mardi Gras is informally observed in many North American cities, usually invoking the spirit of the New Orleans festivities. For most North Americans, Mardi Gras is synonymous with the celebrations held in New Orleans. As Carnival season approaches, residents of New Orleans decorate the city with streamers and flags in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of green, gold, and purple. The season begins for many people on January 6 when king cakes are served during the feast of Epiphany, a holiday commemorating the day three kings (see Wise Men of the East) arrived from the east to honor the Christ child. King cakes are circular pastries usually decorated in the Mardi Gras colors. Traditionally, a king cake containing a bean or a small baby figurine was divided and served to the unmarried women attending a Mardi Gras banquet. Whoever received the slice containing the hidden object was crowned queen of the festival. Today king cakes are popular with office workers, and the person who finds the hidden treasure is obliged to buy the next day’s cake.
Carnival parades through the streets of New Orleans begin 12 days before Mardi Gras Day. Most parades, sponsored by private and highly secretive organizations known as krewes, combine imagery from classical Greek and Roman mythology with satirical references to contemporary events. During the parades, costumed krewe members ride highly decorated floats and toss strings of plastic beads and other trinkets into the crowds of spectators lining the streets. Many krewes hold elaborate, private balls following their parades. On Mardi Gras Day, many ordinary people dress in costume and wander through the city. Revelers jam the narrow streets of the city’s oldest neighborhood, known as the French Quarter. The atmosphere in the French Quarter is marked by drunken euphoria and general abandon.
African American Mardi Gras Traditions
Although modern Mardi Gras festivities have become increasingly integrated since the 1960s, the African American community of New Orleans has long nurtured a number of distinctive Carnival customs. The largest African American krewe of Mardi Gras is the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club Inc., which presents one of the premier attractions of the Mardi Gras season. Combining Mardi Gras revelry with features reminiscent of an elaborate minstrel show, the Zulu parade is especially boisterous. Many Zulus march in blackface (black makeup traditionally used in minstrel shows) and wear grass skirts as they distribute gold-painted coconuts to crowds of observers. Another important African American Carnival tradition is the annual appearance of the Mardi Gras Indians, groups of black men who dance through the streets in costumes inspired by the traditional clothing of Native Americans. Each member of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe creates his own costume, usually incorporating colorful feathers and intricate beadwork. Most scholars believe that the Mardi Gras Indian tradition began in the late 19th century. In the past, rivalries between tribes sometimes led to violent confrontations. Today, such conflicts have given way to a competition among the Mardi Gras Indian tribes for the most elaborate costume.
History of Mardi Gras in New Orleans
During the 18th century, many wealthy Louisiana families would leave their rural plantations to spend the winter months in New Orleans, where they held lavish parties and masked balls. The first written reference to Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans appears in a 1781 report of the Spanish government, which then controlled Louisiana. The report addressed problems that might arise from allowing slaves to wear masks at the winter festivities. The United States took control of Louisiana in 1803, and the New Orleans city council banned all masked entertainment three years later. Enforcement of the law appears to have been erratic. By the mid-1820s masks and costumes were again legal. The first documented Mardi Gras parade took place in 1837, and the parade soon became an annual tradition. However, outbursts of violence at the parades gave the festivities a bad name. In 1857 a group calling itself The Mystik Krewe of Comus staged the first modern Mardi Gras parade, a torchlit nighttime procession of floats illustrating themes from classical mythology and literature. Following the American Civil War (1861-1865), many new krewes soon began offering additional parades and balls.
The Krewe of Rex, organized in 1872, pioneered many innovations that became defining features of New Orleans Mardi Gras. Rex established the tradition of crowning a King of Carnival, selected the Carnival colors, and adopted the song “If Ever I Cease to Love” as a Mardi Gras anthem. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mardi Gras became increasingly important to New Orleans. The festivities attracted visitors, generated income for local merchants, and added to the city’s mystique. The first African American Mardi Gras organization was established in 1894. An all-women group was founded two years later. By the late 1960s, however, many people began to worry that Mardi Gras was in decline. Critics of the parades felt that Mardi Gras had become old-fashioned, and they claimed that the exclusivity of the traditional krewes deterred the lucrative tourist trade. In 1968 the newly formed Krewe of Bacchus staged a parade featuring huge floats and led by an out-of-town celebrity. Other organizations soon followed suit, inaugurating the era of so-called super-krewes. In 1992 the New Orleans city council passed a law prohibiting racial discrimination in groups that sponsored parades using city streets. The law required krewes to provide evidence to the council that they did not discriminate on the basis of race in selecting their membership. Many of the oldest and most prestigious krewes, which had traditionally shrouded their membership policies in secrecy, refused to comply with the law and ceased to parade. Nonetheless, Mardi Gras continues to attract tourists to New Orleans from around the world. Today Mardi Gras draws more than 3 million people to parades and generates approximately $1 billion for the local economy.