It seems like a lot of folks who have never been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans have a limited conception of what Mardi Gras is and what it’s all about, so I thought I’d take some time to shed a little light on the history of Mardi Gras.
Many see Mardi Gras as little more than a big, drunken party with lots of costumes and wild women – sort of like spring break meets Halloween. This image of Mardi Gras attracts some, repels many others, and frustrates those who know it is an oversimplification and, as such, dead wrong.
Not that Mardi Gras can’t be all of those things – in the right place and the right time, this venerable, old celebration can be a very wild time. Take Bourbon Street after a Mardi Gras parade, for example.
But that’s not all of what Mardi Gras is – not by a long shot.
What Is Mardi Gras?
First and foremost, “Mardi Gras” is French for Fat Tuesday – part of the Catholic tradition of celebrating and eating rich foods the day before Lent, a 6-week period of somber and penitent fasting leading up to Easter. The carnival season that culminates with Mardi Gras actually begins on January 6th – Epiphany, in Catholic tradition – but the kind of parades and celebrations we associate with Mardi Gras don’t begin in New Orleans until later – that’s probably a good thing.
A Little HistoryMardi Gras is celebrated all over the world with origins that can be traced back to medieval Europe. It was first celebrated on our shores in 1703 at what was to become Mobile, Alabama.
New Orleans was established in 1718 and, by the 1730s, Mardi Gras was being celebrated here, though not with parades. Instead, the upper class observed the holiday with elegant, masked society balls – early models for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls held today.
When the Spanish took over, however, Mardi Gras was out and the ban wasn’t lifted until 1827, even though Spanish rule had long been gone. The revitalized celebrations now took on more of the profile they have today with street processions led by masked “krewes.” Newspapers began to report on and announce Mardi Gras celebrations in advance – giving us the first mention of “throws” in 1870.
Krewes? Throws? We’ve run out of space for now but, next time around we’ll explore some more of the details of Mardi Gras. If you *really* want to know what Mardi Gras is all about, there’s no substitute for being here! Now is an excellent time to make your Mardi Gras travel plans but New Orleans Bed and Breakfasts tend to fill during Mardi Gras, so I’d book soon!