A brief and glitter-covered history of Mardi Gras

Where did Mardi Gras start? Why is it a holiday that seems to have its epicenter in New Orleans? Here's a look at the history of the holiday itself.  (Marcy Leigh/Flickr Creative Commons)

Mardi Gras is a time-honored tradition down in Louisiana-- which just really means, it’s an amazing excuse to party, wear outrageous outfits and eat an excessive amount of green, purple and yellow-dyed foods.

But where did it all start, and why is it a holiday that seems to have its epicenter in New Orleans? To start, let’s take a look at the history of the holiday itself.

Mardi Gras finds its roots in the Catholic Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. While it doesn’t have a set date, it’s the day immediately preceding Lent, when Catholics traditionally abstain from partaking in ‘vices’ (such as sugary foods) for the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.

While modern-day Catholics usually give up one vice of their choice, such as gaming or drinking soda, back in medieval times the entire period of Lent was dedicated to fasting and giving up all ‘sinful’ foods. Thus, the day beforehand people would empty their cupboards and storerooms of butter, fat, eggs and meats by cooking with them. This has evolved into several Shrove Tuesday festivals, including Pancake Tuesday in England.

In Italy, these customs developed into the famed ‘Carnevale’ (which literally translates to ‘Goodbye to Meat’) where people would dress up in colorful costumes and take parts in parades and dances.

In France, Mardi Gras (‘Fat Tuesday’) marked the end of a weeklong celebrations and cupboard cleanouts and crepes-making. As is done in Italy, people wore masks and highly-embellished costumes and taking part in the revelry.

Back to the United States. In the 1600s and 1700s Louisiana was colonized by French settlers, who were predominantly French-Catholic and brought the sentiments of Mardi Gras with them. The French explorers Iberville and Bienville were the first ones to celebrate the holiday in Louisiana when they landed just south of what is now New Orleans, holding a small party and naming the area Point du Mardi Gras. As settlements grew in the swampy state, so did the revelry, with street celebrations, costume balls and parties filling the streets of the French colonies come springtime.

However, when the Spanish took over Louisiana these parties were banned by the Catholic officials, a prohibition which remained in place until Louisiana became part of the United States. The ban was officially lifted in 1812, after pressure from the Creole (Louisiana-French) community.

The real party started in 1827, when a group of students, upon their return from a trip to France, donned brightly-colored costumes and danced through the streets, much like the celebrations in France. In 1857, the first Mardi Gras parade was held in New Orleans, organized by six businessmen who formed a ‘krewe’ of revelers, essentially a tongue-in-cheek society shrouded in secrecy, mysticism and a whole lot of glitter, who would build floats and organize parades.

The first instance of the King of Mardi Gras comes soon after, when Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff visited Louisiana during the celebrations in 1872. It became traditional to crown a ‘Rex’ (king) as the ruler of the festivities. A krewe of the same name soon formed, in charge of choosing the Rex and forming his royal entourage. One of the oldest krewes in New Orleans, Rex is also responsible for establishing the traditional colors of Mardi Gras: Gold, green and purple.

Nowadays there are over 50 krewes that take part in the Mardi Gras season, each with their own theme, standards and membership fees. Famous Krewes include the Krewe of Zulu, which was formed as a parody of the Rex Krewe, the Krewe of Bacchus, which often features celebrity guests (including Will Ferrell and Hulk Hogan) and even the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, whose members dress up in ‘Star Wars’ costumes and have ‘Star Wars’ themed floats.

Each major krewe has its own history and parade, which tours the streets of New Orleans in the days leading up to Mardi Gras. It’s traditional for krewe members to lob ‘throws’ such as cheap plastic beads, doubloons with the krewe’s logo, cups and other trinkets toward the crowds.

Often, on the night of the parade, krewes will hold their own party or ball to celebrate. During the ball it’s common for revelers to partake in the King’s Cake, which is a ring-shaped cake that’s been fried like a donut and covered in powdered sugar or icing. Baked into the cake hides a small plastic or porcelain baby figure, representing baby Jesus (sometimes a coin or fried fava bean is substituted). Whoever finds the trinket in their slice of cake is said to be lucky and prosperous for the year, or, in some traditions, is in charge of planning next year’s party as the ‘King.’

Though much of the partying in New Orleans has lost touch with its original Catholic roots, Mardi Gras remains a fiercely-beloved tradition in the Cajun and Creole communities of Louisiana. If you happen to be swinging down south this year, put on some face paint, grab some beads and join the festivities.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.