Holidays - Other
By: - at January 28, 2015

15 Fascinating Facts About Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras is a festival marked with an annually occurring tornado of colorful beads, booze, costumes, and the red and blue flicker of police lights. Every year, thousands of visitors venture down to New Orleans in an attempt to leave their own unique mark on the Big Easy, with many unfortunately caught up in disorderly drunkenness. Since its mandate as a legal holiday in the year 1875 by the state of Louisiana, Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday" in French originates from medieval Europe. While the celebration has become sullied by tourists making a spectacle of themselves, Mardi Gras traditionally has to do with observing the beginning of Lent. The day after Mardi Gras is Ash Wednesday, a holy day of great significance in the Catholic Church as it marks the countdown to Easter. What became known as the Carnival season and official starting of Lent, Mardi Gras became a day to get all of your bad behavior out before observing lent for the following 40 days. Tradition has made celebrations and large public parties the most socially acceptable manner of spending Mardi Gras.

Celebrations in New Orleans, USA:
Celebrations in New Orleans, USA
By Infrogmation via Wikimedia Commons

Celebrations in Marseille, France:
Celebrations in Marseille, France
By Say-Mars-Say-Yeah via Wikimedia Commons

So, what is Mardi Gras really about? Below are some interesting facts about Mardi Gras that will give you a better understanding of what is actually going on in New Orleans during the celebration.


15)  Flambeau Carriers Are a Tradition
Before the days of street lights and electricity, live flames were necessary to allow parade goers to see the parade floats. This meant that someone would have to walk alongside the floats with what are known as flambeaus. Flambeau is nothing but a French name for flames, and the carriers of flambeaus date all the way back to slavery. Current flambeau carriers are normally descendants of the original flambeau carriers. Those who are not associated with the slaves who carried the flambeaus are still considered part of this time honored tradition.

 Flambeau Carrier

Flambeau carriers are not associated with every parade, but they are known to be associated with Babylon, Chaos, d’Etat, Druids, Hermes, Muses, Orpheus, Proteus, Saturn and Sparta. The flambeaus use naphtha, which is a highly combustible aromatic. Wild gyrations and flourishes are very common amongst those who are flambeau carriers. Additionally, parade goers are known to give money to flambeau carriers. What started as quarters put in the hands of carriers has given way to dollar bills.

Flambeau Carriers


14)  There Are Several Parades
There is a general misconception that there is only one parade that occurs during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In fact, there are several parades that occur throughout the day. Each has at least one krewe and all of the krewes have a theme. Parade routes are predetermined with the city government through parade permits. Any parade without a permit is subject to fining, and may even lead to arrests if the parade is not immediately disbanded. It is all part of the New Orleans Police department trying to control an otherwise out-of-control day.

Float Coming Down St. Charles  Avenue in New Orleans:
Float Coming Down St. Charles  Avenue in New Orleans

The major parades start in Uptown and run along Canal Street. Parades can also be found in residential neighborhoods, but these are smaller. The majority are geared toward families and lean more toward the traditional side of Mardi Gras. Every parade includes beads and other toys that are thrown from floats to adults and children alike. Doubloons may also be tossed from floats, but are not common to the smaller krewes because they are more expensive to have printed with the name of the krewe and the date of their ball.

Krewe of Slidellians at the Mardi Gras Parade:
Krewe of Slidellians at the Mardi Gras Parade


13)  The Colors of Mardi Gras Have Meaning
Whenever attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you will notice that everything in the city is adorned with purple, green and gold. These colors are common in the beads, on king’s cake and even in flags. Each of the colors has meaning. Purple is for justice, gold is for power, and green is for faith. The colors are said to have been chosen by the Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch Romanoff from Russia. This occurred during a visit to New Orleans in 1872. The meanings of the colors were assigned in 1892 during the Rx Parade when the theme was “symbolism of colors”.

Mardi Gras Flag:
Mardi Gras Flag

In deference to the established legend of the Mardi Gras colors, Errol Laborde wrote a book called “Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival: Comus to Zulu”. In the book, he talks about the colors of Mardi Gras, but insists that the colors were not chosen by anyone for any particular reason, and that they were simply chosen because they look good. These differing opinions about the origins and the meanings of the colors may have less of an impact on those who go to Mardi Gras as even in the Mardi Gras flag, they will forever be purple, yellow and gold.

Mardi Gras Colors House - Bienville Street, New Orleans:
Mardi Gras Colors House - Bienville Street, New Orleans
By Bart Everson via Wikimedia Commons


12)  Don’t Call Him King Rex
Every year, there is one individual who is dubbed the “King of Mardi Gras”. On this day, the individual is given the title of Rex. This is a traditional title given to the king and actually means king. Some people have made the mistake of calling the king of Mardi Gras, “king Rex”. This is a mistake; anyone saying king Rex is actually just saying king king. The correct way to address Rex is simply as Rex. It is also traditional for even close friends to not call Rex by his real name during Mardi Gras.

Will Ferrell as the King of Mardi Gras:
Will Ferrell as the King of Mardi Gras

As a tribute to Rex, there is a ball thrown on the day of Mardi Gras to honor the individual who is chosen. This is one of the more formal balls and is steeped in tradition. It is not an event many who attend Mardi Gras will never see. It is considered an honor simply to be invited to the Rex party, let alone to be honored as Rex. This ball has been known to be televised for those more into the traditional aspect of Mardi Gras to watch even if they cannot be in physical attendance.

2014 Mardi Gras King:
2014 Mardi Gras King


11)  Krewes Cannot Show Their Faces During Parades
What started as a tradition in Mardi Gras has become somewhat of an unspoken law for all krewes. Today, every member of any krewe has to wear a mask to conceal their identity. The tradition of the masks was to preserve the secrecy of the krewes. Each member of the krewe used to be chosen completely in private, and while rolling down streets, the members of the krewe would be able to stay unknown by donning a mask. Rex Krewe wears a long cloth to drape over the face, Zulu Krewe does nothing more than wear black face paint and don wigs.

Representative of the Zulu Crew:
Representative of the Zulu Crew

Today, the krewes have to publicly announce the members chosen as a part of the krewe. This law was put into effect in 1991, and disrupted the secrecy of the krewes, making the use of a mask something more of a tradition than a necessity. To ensure the protection of the traditions of krewes, the New Orleans Code of Ordinances states that it is unlawful for any krewe member to be on a parade float during Mardi Gras without a mask. Further, the law states that every member of the krewe has to be wearing a costume. This is a tradition that is strictly enforced by every krewe that takes part in Mardi Gras.

Rex Crew Passing out Beads:
Rex Crew Passing out Beads


10)  Bead Length Matters
Beads are a tradition for Mardi Gras throwers and as such there are rules that surround the kinds of beads that can be used. Any member of a krewe has to purchase their throws separately from any club dues and any other financial responsibilities they may have. Throws generally include beads and they are chosen specifically for their adherence to the rules of Mardi Gras. One of the main things that is observed with beads is that they are required to be at least two feet in length. Most beads are made from plastic and are very inexpensive to purchase.

mardi gras beads
By satemkemet via Wikimedia Commons

The only way it is acceptable to have beads that are shorter than two feet is when tossing beads that are made from glass. Since these beads are much more expensive, they are generally not tossed from floats. Instead, they are given as presents or as an honor for special deeds during Mardi Gras celebrations. Those who indulge in the more raucous celebrations in the French Quarter may give these out for women exposing themselves. Glass and plastic beads are all made with the official colors of Mardi Gras.

throwing beads around





9)  Finding a Plastic Baby in Kings Cake is Not Bad
Throughout carnival, one of the big traditions is to have a king’s cake during celebrations. Inside of every cake is a small plastic baby. The baby is inserted after the cake is cooked and before it is iced, so you never know if you are going to get the piece of the cake that has the baby in it. This tradition has been used in some social aspects to choose queens for Mardi Gras celebrations. In general, the person who finds the baby is responsible for purchasing the next king’s cake or throwing the next king’s cake party. It is considered an honor to be the one to purchase the king’s cake or to throw the king’s cake party.

Traditional King's Cake:
Traditional King's Cake Decorated in Mardi Gras Colors

The king’s cake is an oblong cake that is normally hollow in the center. Traditional cakes are braided and can even be deep fried. The manner in which the actual cake is made is up to the baker, and there are different thoughts about which is a traditional king’s cake. At the end of the day, it comes down to what your preference for flavor is as to where you will purchase your king’s cake from. Every cake is iced and topped with colored sugars of gold, purple and green. Not to eat king’s cake during Mardi Gras is considered to be bad luck by many.

Lucky Party Guest Finding Plastic Baby Jesus:
Lucky Party Guest Finding Plastic Baby Jesus


8)  Always Step on a Doubloon
If you are in attendance at a parade in which the krewe is throwing doubloons, make sure you do not try to grab it from the ground if you are unable to catch it. The traditional way to secure the doubloon for yourself is to step on it. If you try to grab it with your hand, you may have your hand stepped on or the doubloon will simply be gone before you can get there. Be quick with your foot and then wait until later to retrieve it from the ground. Since there are so few doubloons tossed out during the parade, being one of the fortunate ones to retrieve a doubloon is considered to be great fortune. Make sure you are following protocol, and you will avoid injury and losing your doubloon.

Doubloon

Originally, doubloons were made from aluminum, but eventually moved to plastic to make it more affordable. These are commemorative disks that are made specifically for the krewes that throw them. They are adorned with the name of the krewe and the date.


7)  The French Quarter Is Not the Place to Be for Mardi Gras
When most people think of Mardi Gras, they think about the insanity that occurs on Bourbon Street. In fact, this has so little to do with the traditional Mardi Gras celebration that it is something of a joke to natives of New Orleans. The vast majority of people who can be found on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras are tourists that flew in just to take part in a crazy party. The majority of the French Quarter is not even recognized during the celebrations of Mardi Gras as it is a celebration that has religious roots and is supposed to be a family friendly affair. Those who travel to New Orleans during this time generally never get to see anything other than what many dub the ‘tourist’s Mardi Gras’.

Bourbon Street French Quarter:
Bourbon Street French Quarter
By Poco a poco via Wikimedia Commons

More of the French Quarter:
More of the French Quarter
By Sami99tr via Wikimedia Commons

Those people who live in and around New Orleans attend the more sedate celebrations, and make the day more about spending time with family. One of the main things that families do on this day is to have a barbecue and to celebrate being together. As such, they stay as far away from the French Quarter and all of the debauchery that the section is known for on this day.


6)  Krewe De Vieux Is One of the Only Krewes to Roll in the French Quarter
The French Quarter has been off limits for most krewes since 1972. In fact, there is an ordinance that does not allow the majority of the parades to go through the area. As the floats got bigger and the crowds grew, the French Quarter simply was not feasible. The streets are too narrow and there are too many overhead obstructions to make it worthwhile. Top this off with the fact that the area is overrun with people trying to drink and party as much as possible, and you have a street that is impossible to pass through.

Krewe De Vieux Gathering Up street from the French Quarter:
Krewe De Vieux Gathering Up street from the French Quarter

There are still a small number of krewes that parade through the French Quarter. They use smaller floats and do not use as many throws. One of the best known of these krewes is Krewe de Vieux. The themes of this krewe are always over the top, and very much in keeping with the debauchery that the area is known for on this day. Those who are easily offended should not be in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras to begin with, but definitely should not be in near the Krew de Vieux.


5)  Mardi Gras and Carnival Are Not the Same Thing
The carnival season starts in January on Twelfth Night. This celebration marks the first of the parades that will go all the way through Mardi Gras. Because there are floats and parades that are used throughout carnival, there is often confusion as to whether the names ‘carnival’ and ‘Mardi Gras’ are interchangeable. In fact, they are not. Mardi Gras is a single day that precedes Ash Wednesday. Carnival stretches for three months and is a general celebratory period of time. Even though Mardi Gras is during carnival, it is a day unto itself, and cannot be called carnival for the same reasons carnival cannot be called Mardi Gras.

Gate Decorated with Beads Celebrating Mardi Gras and Carnival Season:
Gate Decorated with Beads Celebrating Mardi Gras and Carnival Season
By Derek Bridges via Wikimedia Commons

Those who live in New Orleans view the period of carnival as a way to start gearing up for Mardi Gras. Vendors start selling Mardi Gras masks and you will find more beads available for purchase than usual. Households throughout New Orleans start putting up more Mardi Gras decorations throughout carnival, and parades will run at least once a week for the entire period of time leading up to the big day.


4)  First Mardi Gras Thrower was Santa
Even though Mardi Gras is known as a time to let go of some of your inhibitions and party before lent, it is also closely tied in with religious doctrine and is considered to be a legal holiday in New Orleans. As such, it is not uncommon to find many other big names from the holidays make appearances in themes for floats. Santa was one such person to make an appearance during a Mardi Gras parade. In fact, he has the distinction of being one of the first throwers. Santa handed out presents to children during a Twelfth Day parade in homage to the Christmas holiday.

Santa Clause in the Upper Gwynedd Fire Truck - Lansdale, PA:
Santa Clause at the Upper Gwynedd Fire Truck in Lansdale, PA

The idea of giving out small presents during parades quickly became a very popular idea. It has spread to just about every parade and krewe throughout carnival and into Mardi Gras. While the majority of the throws are nothing more than beads, doubloons and small presents have also been known to be thrown from the floats. All of the throws are purchased by members of the krewe for the honor of giving something to the people who attend the parades. It is for this reason that the majority of the people who are members of krewes tend to be wealthy. It is not everyone who can afford to purchase the hundreds of throws that are given out throughout a parade.

Zulu Krewe's Float:
Zulu Krewe's Float


3)  Plastic Beads Started in 1970
The beads tossed out at Mardi Gras are plastic and have been for some time, but they were not always plastic. In fact, it was not until 1970 that this happened. The beads used today are very inexpensive plastic beads made in Hong Kong. The original beads were much more expensive Czechoslovakian glass beads. These ornate beads are still used by some looking to offer a more elaborate gift during a celebration. The main reason for the switch was to be able to throw more beads during the celebrations and during parades.

plastic beads

Because many people do not even bother to catch or pick up the beads that are tossed when they are simple beads, some krewes have taken to purchasing metallic beads or strings that contain large beads rather than the small, unimpressive ones. Anything that is distinctive and unique will garner more attention from the crowds, and will likely never be given the opportunity to touch the ground. While these beads are slightly more expensive, they are worth it to the krewes that take pride in their throws.


2)  Comus Is Oldest Krewe
The oldest krewe to be continuously active in Mardi Gras is the Mystik Krewe of Comus. Comus was established and had its first parade in 1857. This traditional krewe is very much part of the old school of thought surrounding the traditions of Mardi Gras. As such, the members of Comus are completely secret. This flies in the face of the ordinance set in 1991 in which all krewes were required to publish their members to stop discrimination based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Any krewe failing to publish the names of the members of their krewe would not be able to attain public licenses or parade permits. Rather than trying to attain these permits and licenses, Comus decided to bow out of taking part in the parades. They felt that tradition mattered more than protection from discrimination.

Mistick Krewe of Comus, New Orleans:
Mistick Krewe of Comus, New Orleans

Comus still holds a ball in honor of Mardi Gras, but refuses to take part in the parades if they cannot maintain the secrecy of their krewe members. As such, joining the krewe has become one of the most sought after for those people who want to enjoy the more traditional side of Mardi Gras celebrations. Becoming a member is extremely difficult, because you must first find a member and have them recommend you. This is a process that is easier said than done as the krewe members do not announce their involvement in Comus to protect the krewe.


1)  The “Coconut Bill” Saved a Zulu Tradition
Zulu is one of the first parades on Mardi Gras, and the krewe has a lot of fun dressing up and throwing their coconuts. Actually, these days the coconuts are no longer thrown so much as they are handed to those who attend the parade. The main problem that Zulu was running into was that America started to become a haven for people looking to sue other people for personal injuries. As you can tell, a flying coconut is not that safe when lobbed from a moving float into a crowd. In 1987 Zulu krewe could not get insurance coverage to take part in their parade unless they agreed to abstain from handing out coconuts.

Zulu Krewe Parading Through the Quarter:
Zulu Krewe Parading Through the Quarter

Since New Orleans is a place of tradition, especially when it comes to Mardi Gras, Governor Edwards worked with the Louisiana legislature to come up with what is known as the “Coconut Bill”. This bill was passed in 1988 and states that coconuts are excluded from any personal injury claim that may be pursued in a court of law. The only stipulation was that the coconuts had to be handed out rather than tossed from the float in order to have the protection of the law. To date, Zulu Krewe observes this law and passes out coconuts from their float.

Zulu Krewe Members at Lundi Gras Festival:
Zulu Krewe Members at Lundi Gras Festival
By Mandy via Wikimedia Commons


Conclusion
As you can see, a lot goes into Mardi Gras other than just drinking and flashing breasts (a move that can actually get you a ticket or even arrested). The true Mardi Gras is a tradition that dates back to the early 1800s in New Orleans and even longer in the Catholic religion throughout the world. Getting to know these and other facts about Mardi Gras will help you to have a better time while experiencing something not many tourists get to see.



 

 

 

 

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