10 Mardi Gras Traditions You Need to Know About
If you’ve never experienced Mardi Gras first-hand, a giant bar crawl on Bourbon Street involving college kids imbibing to excess and inexplicably baring all for some plastic beads may come to mind. But this is a major misconception, friends.
In fact, the Mardi Gras festival predates the idea of spring break-style partying by several centuries, and any New Orleanian will tell you that the jamboree that centers around Fat Tuesday is actually a family-friendly affair. So, what exactly is Mardi Gras a celebration of? Read on for the short version of this festival’s rich history and a round-up of the major Mardi Gras traditions, so you can party with the best of ‘em in Louisiana—either virtually, or when the killjoy known as Covid-19 is in the rearview.
What Is Mardi Gras?
Still not clear on what Mardi Gras is all about? Basically, it’s a get-your-rocks-off extravaganza that occurs in anticipation of a big dry spell (i.e., the Christian holiday known as Lent). After all, we know the Lord giveth and taketh away, so why shouldn’t He giveth us the occasion to eat and party like none other before we temporarily bid adieu to a few of our favorite things. It’s hard to name the founder of this tradition because it’s so old, it can be traced back to pagan rituals from thousands of years ago.
That said, according to History.com, the United States can largely thank one man in particular for all the hoopla: Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, a French explorer who anchored at a port not far from New Orleans on the eve of this ancient holiday and held a small celebration to honor both his landfall and Fat Tuesday. (Serendipity!) From there, things really took off and all kinds of permutations took place, but the bottom line is this: Mardi Gras is an occasion to feast and make merry before a period of penance, and it is celebrated by Christians around the world.
Now that you’ve got a little background under your belt, here are some Mardi Gras traditions that will help you better understand the excitement and eccentricities of the event.
Parades. So many parades...and they begin well before Fat Tuesday. In fact, they span an entire season, beginning on January 6th and continuing until Mardi Gras arrives—a period known as Carnival. Mardi Gras and Carnival parades are organized by Mardi Gras Krewes (more on that below) and typically feature stunning, larger-than-life papier mache floats, often hand-crafted by community artists, that fit the aesthetic of the celebration.
2. Mardi Gras Krewes
A social club called the Mystick Krewe of Comus pulled off the first themed Mardi Gras parade open to the public in New Orleans in 1856. In fact, this group is responsible for starting many of the Mardi Gras traditions that follow—and for encouraging other Krewes to spring up and carry on the legacy. Before the Mystick Krewe of Comus came around and cleaned up the holiday, Mardi Gras celebrations were so, er, wild that a ban against them was put in place. To this day, organized Krewes are responsible for putting together the remarkable parades and many of the heavy-hitters have contributed their own unique traditions to the festival.
3. Mardi Gras Masks
Masks are basically obligatory at a Mardi Gras celebration...unless you’re riding on a float, in which case they are legally required. (Yep, it is against the law in New Orleans to show your face on a Mardi Gras parade float.) This practice dates back to the beginnings of the festival—a time when masquerades were the preferred (read: only) way for people of different classes to let loose and commingle comfortably. That said, the artistry that goes into many of the masks you see at Mardi Gras is reason enough to keep the tradition—and mystery—alive.
4. Throwing Coconuts
So, we mentioned Krewes already, but didn’t name Zulu—a major Black-founded Krewe—who are credited with the original coconut idea. The coconut toss didn’t last too long, since it was inevitably deemed too dangerous to the public. Still, the coconut-giving tradition survived and if you score one of these (thankfully not airborne) fruits at Mardi Gras, it’s considered a very special prize.
In case you missed it, Mardi Gras celebrations in the United States have been around for more than two centuries. As such, the flambeaux tradition was once a sheerly practical thing—a gaslight torch goes a long way towards helping a horse-back or carriage-driven attendee see a stunning parade at night. Class and race have a lot to do with the flambeaux, too, since it was often enslaved Creoles and Black individuals who carried the torches and performed with the fire to earn tips. These days, the flame is still going strong, primarily because of the cultural history it represents—one that shouldn’t soon be forgotten.
6. Bead Throws
All manner of things are thrown from the floats at Mardi Gras, but the beads are a biggie. So, who started the tradition of throwing glass beads at a captivated crowd? You guessed it, another major Krewe is behind this one: The Twelfth Night Revelers, a group who kicked off the tradition in 1870. All the other Krewes caught on pretty quickly, and various ‘throws’ became a hallmark of the festival. Fortunately, glass beads have been replaced with the safer, plastic sort—but you can still expect to walk away from Mardi Gras with a bag of goodies, including the famous beads, doubloons and an assortment of handmade tchotchkes. Heads up!
7. King Cake
This treasure hunt is a piece of cake…just don’t eat the baby. That said, if you find one in your slice, you’ll be king for a day and party-host the next, which doesn’t sound half-bad, really. King cake is a big deal at Mardi Gras and it’s a very delicious tradition indeed. This rich and moist cake will send you over the moon, so if you want to score a slice, keep your eyes peeled for a frosted pastry that sports the royal colors of Mardi Gras (i.e., purple, green and gold).
Rex is known as the King of Carnival, and he's been a Mardi Gras mascot since 1872 when a group of businessmen came up with the idea as a way to honor the visiting Grand Duke of Russia. Said businessmen formed the Krewe of Rex—a group responsible for many Mardi Gras traditions, including the notion of day parades. Suffice it to say, of all the parades that take place while the sun is shining, the Rex parade is a pretty big deal.
9. Mardi Gras Colors
Purple, green and gold have been the official hues of Mardi Gras since the first Rex parade in 1872. As for why they were chosen? The story is a little complicated. But the gist of it is that the founders of Rex figured that the King of Carnival should have a flag and—with some guidance from the rules on regal shades—purple, green and gold are the colors that they picked to represent justice, faith and power respectively. The most important thing to know, though, is that you will see these colors everywhere at Mardi Gras and you’ll get more beads if you sport them yourself.
10. The Key to the City
One more thing about the King of the Carnival, and this one is quick: Every year at Mardi Gras the mayor of New Orleans gives Rex the key to the city. Why? Because he’s king, of course.