There’s nothing better than a great party.
And when that party is in some of the most historic cities in the world, and includes thousands of people celebrating a tradition that’s hundreds of years old, well…
Best. Party. Ever.
Mardi Gras falls on Tuesday, March 5th this year, which is the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent for Christians.
Although it officially takes place on one day, Mardi Gras – translated in English as “Fat Tuesday” – has become a days-to-weeks-long event in many towns and cities all over the world.
What began centuries ago in France as a time to celebrate with food and festivities in preparation for the somber observance of Lent has now become a worldwide phenomenon.
In the U.S., New Orleans, Louisiana is probably the place you think of when you hear “Mardi Gras.”
But America’s Mardi Gras celebration did not originate in New Orleans. That title goes to Mobile, Alabama, where French settlers held the first organized Mardi Gras celebration in 1703.
In fact, one of the first official Mardi Gras organizations began in Mobile in 1711 – the Boeuf Gras Society. That’s “fat beef” in English, which just doesn’t sound as pretty.
These organizations – or “krewes” as they’re called – were responsible for throwing the greatest celebration of the year. And today’s krewes are still a big deal in the high societies of the French-influenced deep south.
Pancakes, Parades, and Partying…Oh, my!
In 1723, the capital of Louisiana moved again. We bet you can guess where.
Yep, New Orleans.
The traditions of those first French settlers had caught on and were celebrated each year on a fairly small scale until someone thought, “Hey, let’s dress up and have a parade and eat and drink until we pass out.”
Thus, in 1837, the first official Mardi Gras parade took place in New Orleans. It has grown bigger and bigger every year and is now synonymous with the city, drawing revelers from all over the world.
Eating is a big part of Mardi Gras because most Christians give up one of their favorite bad habits for Lent.
For many of us, that sacrifice is carbs – cakes, pasta, bread, alcohol. (Don’t judge me, keto people.)
For this reason, almost every small town and city church will host a pancake dinner with plenty of butter and syrup on Fat Tuesday as a chance to load up one last time before the deprivation that’s about to come.
And you can’t have a celebration without a parade, so Mardi Gras celebrations all over the world are planned months in advance for thousands of floats and performances to showcase all the splendor of the particular city.
It’s Rex…King Rex
Of course, a king still rules the day on Mardi Gras, and his name is Rex.
The first King Rex was crowned in 1872 and was said to be the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia.
On a visit to the U.S., Alexis went hunting with one General George Armstrong Custer. The Duke also stopped in Louisiana and city officials thought he would be a good draw for tourists in the post-Civil War devastation – and so the tradition began.
Nowadays, “Rex” is always a prominent resident living in New Orleans and is given a key to the city.
And it was with this first King Rex that the tradition of Mardi Gras beads came about.
The traditional colors of Mardi Gras beads were chosen because they represented the colors of royalty – purple for justice, gold for power, and green for faith. They were handed out to those who seemed to exemplify all three.
Yes, they were handed out – not thrown with abandon like they are now – because these beads were made of glass (plastic wasn’t really invented yet) and no one wanted shards of broken glass lining the streets. That would get you a big ‘ole lawsuit nowadays.
These colors are also represented in the traditional King Cake, another element brought to the U.S. by French settlers.
These rich and colorful cakes are fit for a king, made with all the butter and sugar anyone could ask for, and usually have a little figurine baby who represents the Christ Child inside.
Whoever finds the baby in their piece of cake is said to be gifted with health and prosperity for the next year.
Just don’t expect to find the baby if you order your King Cake from a modern bakery.
Americans are fond of their lawsuits (see above), so local bakeries now put these little choking hazards on top of the cake, just in case.
It’s also worth noting that modern-day “krewes” – remember, they’re the groups who organize the festivities – are pretty much local royalty.
These old-money, ivy-dripping mansion owners or generations-old local business owners are often part of these important krewes. They are also comprised of local workers like firefighters and teachers.
Being a part of a krewe makes someone part of a very unique – and important — class of locals.
Who was that masked man?
Masks became a big part of the Mardi Gras tradition because, centuries ago, the lower classes were not able to attend social gatherings like balls and parties.
Mardi Gras was one of the first celebrations to be adopted by every social class, so masks were worn so that all could participate in the festivities on the same social level.
In New Orleans, it is the law – seriously – for anyone riding on a parade float to wear a mask. We’re not sure you’d end up in jail if you didn’t, but tradition is tradition. And tradition is clearly just as important than the law itself in this neck of the woods.
Speaking of the law, while everyone is legally allowed to wear a mask on Mardi Gras day itself, many shop owners ask that you remove them when you enter their establishment. You’ve seen the creepy horror movies, so be nice and take off the mask if you’re asked to!
The costumes during Mardi Gras are also extravagant and fantastic. You can literally be anyone or anything, and everyone loves an escape from reality.
Of course as with most traditions, there are always those who like to buck the system and add some shock value.
This is how the “tradition” of young women baring it all in exchange for some kind of trinket or a string of Mardi Gras beads came about.
While Mardi Gras festivities have been going on since the beginning of New Orleans, it seems the rowdy spring break culture of the young and drunk on Bourbon Street has brought these festivities to a new level.
But the locals who are proud of their city and its history want you to know this is not the real Mardi Gras – and they really wish this “tradition” would go away.
So please, keep your shirts on, ladies.
Too many traditions to mention…
There are countless Mardi Gras celebrations all over the world, and many cities have developed their own local traditions.
Little French towns and major French cities celebrate in grand style, with one of the oldest and largest taking place in Nice. Festivities in Nice date back to 1294, the earliest recorded carnival celebration in France. These residents don’t forget their roots.
And Rio de Janeiro isn’t called the “Carnival Capital of the World” for nothing. Millions of visitors travel here for their pre-Lenten carnival celebrations, which are held during the five days prior to Ash Wednesday.
Many Caribbean islands are also famous for their carnivals due to early French influences, and while many original Mardi Gras traditions are observed, they each celebrate with unique regional customs.
Montreal and Quebec were, of course, heavily influenced by French settlements in the late 1700s and the festivities here are very traditional and extremely important to their residents.
And in the U.S., local officials who know they can’t compete with New Orleans come up with their own creative twists on Mardi Gras.
Corpus Christi, Texas holds an annual “Barefoot Mardi Gras” on the beach – masks are optional, but no shoes allowed.
And St. Louis, Missouri claims to hold the largest Mardi Gras party in the states, surpassing the size of New Orleans, if not quite reaching its legendary status.
The Grand Parade attracts thousands and you don’t even have to be a human to participate. Their pet parade is also a huge event, where Fido and Spot wear elaborate costumes (and probably aren’t too happy about it). There’s even a Weiner Dog Derby that serves as St. Louis’ way of tipping their hats to the city’s partial German heritage.
And don’t forget Mobile, Alabama! They like to make sure everyone knows they were the first U.S. city to hold the celebration in 1703.
They’re just a little bitter, which may be why they throw a great party. Hey, who doesn’t appreciate a good competition?
Yes, New Orleans is the end-all, be-all for celebrating Mardi Gras, but it’s celebrated in every part of the world.
You can read more about all the great things to do in New Orleans in our Proud American Traveler review of the city here.
Wherever you celebrate, know that you are part of a centuries-old tradition – already 300 years strong in the U.S. alone.
It’s the biggest party around, so grab yourself mask and get out there!