There’s a one-liner among the folks who live in New Orleans that goes something like this: You know you’re from New Orleans when you only find out in high school that Mardi Gras is really not a national holiday.
Contrary to popular belief, Mardi Gras is not one of America’s most-treasured national holidays like the Fourth of July or Christmas. While it is still popular in American culture, Mardi Gras is a local cultural event centered in 3 parishes of Louisiana. Additionally, Mardi Gras carries a huge significance in meaning, tradition, history and in terms of its affect on the local economy.
And while you may think Mardi Gras is x-rated, it really isn’t. While the antics of the young and breast-bearing of some women has tainted the event and become perhaps part of its primary focus, Mardi Gras is truly a generally safe family event and offers the chance for everyone to celebrate and have fun.
What exactly is Mardi Gras?
When many people think of Mardi Gras, things like lewd behavior, excessive drinking, and out of control maniacs running around on Bourbon Street cross their minds. Visions of dancing, fighting, flashing breasts and unruly behavior may also be their interpretation of what Mardi Gras is.
However, Mardi Gras is not all that – really.
Mardi Gras is in fact connected to the Catholic Church which licensed Carnival (meaning “farewell to flesh”) as a period of feasting before the fasting of Lent.
Additionally, the Catholic Church set the date for the start of the season as January 6, which is also the Feast of the Epiphany.
Mardi Gras and the Carnival season is a preparation for the start of Lent. Its season is celebrated with parades, balls and even king cake parties. Celebrations and parades take place for a period of 10 days to two weeks prior to Fat Tuesday with the major parades occurring five days prior to Mardi Gras.
Unfortunately, what is shown on television oftentimes are the sometimes chaotic scenes from the French Quarter thus marring the true meaning and religious significance of the holiday.
How big is Mardi Gras?
• According to the 2000 economic impact report, Mardi Gras generated more than one billion dollars in annual spending.
• There are over 50 parades in a Carnival Season. (Carnival refers to the season which begins on January 6 while Mardi Gras is the most important day of the Carnival. Mardi Gras is scheduled 47 days before Easter and can occur anytime between February 3 through March 9.)
• With over 50 parades in three parishes (counties), there will be at least 1000 floats, 580+ marching bands, 3750 total parade units and more than 135,000 participants.
• With that many parades there is at least 301 miles of parade routes.
Colors, Lingo and Traditions
The official colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green and gold. They were selected by Rex, the King of Carnival in 1872 and carry symbolism. Purple represents justice, green is for faith, and gold is the symbol of power.
The lingo of Mardi Gras includes words such as doubloons, favors, King Cake, krewe (a general term for all Carnival organizations), Lundi Gras (Fat Monday), throws (beads), court (for the king and queen), and Boeuf Gras (the fattened bull or ox).
Traditions include ‘bal masque’ which means a masked ball. The Carnival Balls are usually private and formal affairs and generally by invitation only. The balls actually predate the first parade by more than a century and over 125 balls take place each season.
Wearing a mask is optional but most people don them especially on Fat Tuesday when wearing them in public is legal from dawn until dusk.