The rip-roaring celebration known as Mardi Gras has been underway in New Orleans since mid-February. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” and this upcoming Tuesday, March 4 will be Fat indeed. The name refersto the final night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting for Lent (the six weeks before Easter). The big festivities begin in February but Mardi Gras officially begins on the Christian holiday of Three Kings Day (January 6) and culminates at midnight on Ash Wednesday.
Mardi Gras refers to the celebration of Carnival, which most people envision as people partying on the street, collecting beads while opulent floats fill the streets during wild parades. Other popular Mardi Gras practices include revelers wearing masks and costumes, attending lavish parties and social conventions, dancing, and sports competitions. The visions that people have of Mardi Gras – the wild partying, the beads, and the flamboyant street celebrations are definitely part of the package. But there are interesting facts and significances to Mardi Gras that the average person may not know. Here are 5:
1) There are no major parades in the French Quarter
As much as the visions of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street are affiliated with Mardi Gras, none of the major parades have entered the Vieux Carré (“French Quarter”) since the 1970s because the streets are too narrow. Instead, they “roll” (the term for parading) through a different part of town, along the beautiful tree-lined St. Charles Avenue, in the Garden District. On St. Charles, the floats are surrounded by the city’s regal colonial mansions. In the week before Mardi Gras, the street hosts more than a dozen major parades, leaving thousands of bead necklaces hanging from the branches of the historic oak trees.
2) There is a perfectly PG way to get beads and the best “throw” is a shoe
The best way to get throws (the name given to the goodies thrown off of the float into the hands of eager spectators ) isn’t to flash anyone, a practice locals regard as vulgar and something reserved for tourists. The traditional way to get beads is to shout, “Throw me something mister!” at members of the krewe rolling by on floats. A krewe is an organization that puts on a Carnival parade and/or a ball. But make sure you change that to “Throw me something Misses” for all-female krewes. You will feel more distinguished collecting beads this way, especially in front of the many young attendees, who often watch the parades from atop hand-painted traditional Mardi Gras ladders, and their parents.
Mardi Gras is definitely famous for its beads but there are better throws to collect. One of the most sought-after is a hand-decorated shoe from the Krewe of Muses, considered a Mardi Gras treasure. Each unique shoe is adorned with feathers, glitter, bells, and all kinds of schmaltz and can take several days for a Muse to make.
3) The after parade parties are equally or even more important as the parades
For the older krewes, the highlight of Mardi Gras is not the parades, but the posh private balls held in honor of celebrating the Monarchs of Merriment. The Rex and Comus krewes throw the grandest galas of all. The galas culminate with Rex, the King of Carnival, and his debutante companion for the evening pay tribute to the King and Queen of Comus just before midnight. As reported on Time.com, in 1950, British Royals Prince Edward and his American bride, Wallis Simpson, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor attended the Comus ball, where they “bowed and curtsied before the Krewe’s make-believe monarchs, much to the delight of the assembled New Orleans grandees.”
The Mistick Krewe of Comus, a group of Alabama Anglo-Americans, started the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade tradition in 1856, when they rolled two floats through the streets at night. The krewe has since become renowned for its fantastical wood and papier-mâché floats inspired by classical themes. In 1872, the Krewe of Rex and the Knights of Momus began paying for parades and balls of their own, followed by other krewes, which eventually evolved into the current traditions of today.
4) Fat Tuesday is actually an international affair
New Orleans is not the only city to celebrate Fat Tuesday. Brazil and Italy hold world-famous Carnival parties, along with other countries having distinct pre-Lent traditions. Belgium’s celebration, held in a town called Binche, dates all the back to the 14th century. On Mardi Gras, local men wear magnificent, colorful costumes, clogs, and wax masks featuring tiny spectacles. These “Gilles” parade through the center of town, shaking stick rattles to ward of evil spirits. They then don ostrich-feather hats and pelt the crowd with oranges later in the day. What a fun, silly, and original tradition! Ivrea, Italy, also has a “Battle of Oranges” that finds its roots in medieval times.
Other cities famous for Mardi Gras celebrations include Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Barranquilla in Colombia, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, Quebec City in Canada, and both Mazatlán and Sinaloa in Mexico. Brazil attracts 70% of its tourists during Carnival, the most famous Brazilian holiday, with two million people found celebrating in Rio. There is also Carnival in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.
5) The first U.S. Mardi Gras was not in New Orleans
Mardi Gras is “believed to have arrived in North America on March 3, 1699, when the French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville camped about 60 miles downriver from the future site of New Orleans,” as stated on Time.com. Remembering how it was Fat Tuesday in France, Iberville decided to name the location Point du Mardi Gras and hold a small fête. A few years later, French soldiers and settlers feasted and wore masks as part of Mardi Gras festivities in the newly founded city of Mobile (located in present-day Alabama). Mobile still, to this day, claims to have the oldest annual Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S.
For those of you lucky enough to attend the celebrations in NOLA or any of the other wordly locations, be safe and have fun! For the rest of us, we can at least impress people at parties with our new knowledge on the festivities.
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