Say "Mardi Gras" to most people and all they think of is boobs, beads and booze. Which isn't far off. But there's a lot more to this weeks-long celebration that's been a tradition for over 5,000 years. (When pagan women flashed for pebbles and shells.)
So to get you caught up on why we catch beads, drink heavily and eat king cake, here's your quick guide to all things Mardi Gras.
What does "Mardi Gras" mean?
"Mardi Gras" is French for Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday which signals the start of Lent. And since Lent is the Christian season of fasting and repentance that ends with Easter - where you pledge to give up a luxury of some sort, like chocolate, booze, porn, or the Internet - people all over the world have traditionally gone wild in the weeks leading up to it, holding feasts with abundant food, drink, and yeah, sex. It's also been tied to ancient pagan rites of spring.
Is Mardi Gras known by other names?
Other names for Mardi Gras include: Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day and Dollar Day.
Is Mardi Gras the whole celebration or just the one day?
Both. It started as just a term to denote the final day of the party, but over time has become synonymous with the entire celebration.
Originally it was known as "Carnival", a European tradition brought to Louisiana by the French in the late 1600's. Not surprisingly, the word carnival is derived from the Latin expression "farewell to the flesh".
If Mardi Gras is the end of the party, when does the celebration start?
In New Orleans, they start the party on January 6, also known as King's Day or Twelfth Night. It signifies the arrival of the three kings at Jesus' birthplace, officially ending the Christmas season.
Is Mardi Gras celebrated only in New Orleans?
Not at all. While NO has one of the biggest and most well known celebrations, big parties are held every year in Mobil, Alabama and all around the world. The most famous (and wild) of which is Rio de Janeiro's Carnival.
Who runs Mardi Gras?
Back in New Orleans in the early 1800's organizations called "krewes" threw the parties and created floats for the parades. In the 1850's the krewes were officially charged with Mardi Gras planning and organization.
How many krewes are there?
The number changes every year, because some krewes disband and others are created. This year there were almost 40 krewes involved.
When did the parades start?
The first nighttime parade in the US was held in New Orleans in 1838, organized by the Krewe of Comus, who followed it up with a masquerade ball. The first day parade was held in 1857.
Why all the masks?
It's been a tradition to hold
masquerade balls during Carnival since French rule in the 1700's. And knowing what goes on during the celebration, it's no wonder people wanted to hide their faces. And if you don't want your kids seeing a pic of you on the Internet, flashing during a college trip to NO, a mask is a good idea.
What's the deal with the beads?
Contrary to popular thought, you do not have to flash to get beads. (But try not to spread that around.) The tradition started in the 1870's when krewes threw beads, plastic coins and other trinkets or "throws" from parade floats into the crowds to get them wound up.
While all kinds of plastic toys and other stuff is hurled into the crowds, it's still the beads that people want most. And the tradition of women flashing to get them is believed to have come from guys holding back giving them what they wanted, until they got something in return. And the rest is history. (Just an FYI: Public nudity is actually frowned on in NO and you can be arrested for flashing.)
What's up with the colors?
In 1872, Rex, King of Carnival declared purple, green and gold the official colors in 1872. Purple is for justice, green for faith and gold denotes power.
What is King Cake?
Another big Mardi Gras tradition, the cake is named for the three kings who made the trip to see Jesus, and for the feast of the Epiphany which is celebrated on Jan 6. Each cake has a small plastic baby hidden inside, and the person who finds it is crowned king.
Has Mardi Gras ever been canceled?
Yes. Twice. During both world wars. During Prohibition, the party still went on.