“Mardi Gras” is almost synonymous with “New Orleans.” From the parades and the food to the music and the costumes, its imagery is recognized around the world. While part of a wider cultural celebration of festivity before the beginning of the Christian penitential season of Lent, Mardi Gras is still an event all its own.
Here, National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee Caroline Gerdes, who is conducting an oral history project of the city’s Ninth Ward, takes us through this iconic celebration, revealing what’s true and what’s false among some of the most common ideas about Mardi Gras.
By Caroline Gerdes
1. Mardi Gras is one day.
Yes, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is just one day. But, Carnival season lasts from Epiphany, Jan. 6, until the day before Ash Wednesday. Tourists expecting parades in the summer or fall will be disappointed.
2. Mardi Gras is the same date every year.
Mardi Gras, like Easter, falls on a different date every year, depending on the vernal equinox.
3. It is customary to flash at Mardi Gras.
Flashing is illegal at parades. If you get caught, you will most likely be arrested. Now, it does happen on Bourbon Street — I would wager generally by a tourist. But that kind of behavior is likely to anger locals in other parts of the city, especially at daytime parades. A simple shout of “Throw me something Mister” — or blowing a kiss — is all you need to get beads!
4. Mardi Gras is a family event.
Yes, parades outside the French Quarter are intended for families. Standing in front of a child as a float passes goes against Mardi Gras etiquette. Be aware of the little ones around you and give them first dibs on throws.
5. People wear costumes at Mardi Gras.
It is customary to wear costumes or satirical flair to a Mardi Gras parade — at least something in Mardi Gras colors purple, green or gold. Many groups costume together and Krewes, bands of people who ride in a parade, always wear a guise. Some walking Krewes have themed ensembles. Most notably, the historic Mardi Gras Indians spend months creating intricate feather beaded suits.
6. Only beads are thrown at Mardi Gras.
While beads are the most common Carnival catch, one may also collect stuffed animals, garders, flowers, doubloons, Moon Pies or a signature throw. The Krewe of Zulu, for example, is famous for its painted and bejeweled coconuts.
7. A king cake baby represents the baby Jesus.
I told this story in an earlier post!
8. Mardi Gras ends at Midnight on Fat Tuesday.
At midnight the party is over and Lent, a time of penatence begins. This rule is taken seriously, parades stop rolling, some bars close and the street sweepers start cleaning up.
9. Mardi Gras’ success is measured in trash.
After the party ends at midnight, street sweepers collect trash from the day’s parties and parades. The refuse is weighed and compared against previous years’ waste to measure the success of the year’s Mardi Gras.
10. There’s a meaning behind the Mardi Gras colors.
The Mardi Gras colors purple, green and gold represent justice, faith and power, respectively. They also have become symbols for the state of Louisiana with Louisiana State University’s colors in purple and gold and Tulane University in green.