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7 Things You Should Know About the History of Mardi Gras
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February 4, 2020
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Travel Trivia Editorial
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Whether or not you have traveled to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras, you likely know it's a huge festival with floats, parades, music, food, and spirits the day before Ash Wednesday. Technically, New Orleans starts having Carnival parades weeks before the final Mardi Gras celebration. Mardi Gras has a long, interesting, and colorful history. Below we share that history with you by providing seven things you should know about the history of Mardi Gras.

The First Mardi Gras Wasn't in New Orleans

Downtown Mobile, Alabama
Credit: Sean Pavone/ Shutterstock 

In the United States, the vast majority of people associate Mardi Gras with New Orleans. But those who live in the area or in Mobile, Alabama, know differently. French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville made his camp about 60 miles away from today's New Orleans. He named the spot Point du Mardi Gras and held a small celebration in 1699. In the early 1700s, French soldiers and settlers began to celebrate Mardi Gras in the new city of Mobile, which claims to have the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the nation.

Mardi Gras Emerged From Ancient Pagan Celebrations

Remainder of Saturn Temple in modern-day Rome
Credit: AnMenshikova/ Shutterstock

Some disagreement exists about the origins of Mardi Gras. Still, the general consensus is that it emerged from pagan celebrations about fertility and spring, including the Roman festivals of Lupercalia and Saturnalia. During Lupercalia, which is held each year on February 15, a group of priests called the Luperci sacrificed goats and a dog. The Luperci touched the resulting bloody knife to the foreheads of a couple of Romans before wiping off the blood, and the two men who had the blood on their head were required to laugh. After the ceremony, the Luperci had a feast.

Saturnalia, most commonly associated with its direct impact on Christmas and New Year celebrations, is the Roman festival celebrating the god Saturn. Its influence on Mardi Gras is tied to the relaxation of moral restrictions and massive street celebrations during the festival.

The Spanish Outlawed Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Historical street sign in French Quarter of New Orleans
Credit: Joel Carillet/ iStock

Prior to the Louisiana Purchase, today's New Orleans fell under French and Spanish rule. If you visit, you can see the influences in the architecture that made New Orleans one of the most distinctive cities in the United States. Not only did the Spaniards bring courtyards and other great architectural features to the city, but they also outlawed Mardi Gras. Spanish rule over the area lasted from 1762 to 1800. Before their rule, Mardi Gras celebrations under French rule included balls and fetes leading up to Lent. The ruling Spanish governors outlawed the celebrations, which weren't allowed again until 1823 after the U.S. had control for 20 years.

Krewes Began as Secret Societies Celebrating Mardi Gras

Crowds of people in New Orleans
Credit: Joel Carillet/ iStock 

Violent and uncouth behavior in the streets of New Orleans during the mid-1800s led locals and media outlets to call for the end of Mardi Gras celebrations. In 1857, six citizens formed the Comus organization and changed the face of Mardi Gras forever. The men transformed the celebration so it looked similar to what we see during today's Mardi Gras celebration and proved to those calling for its end that the festival could be safe and fun for all. Comus coined the word "krewe," which refers to secret societies that celebrate Carnival. Today, each krewe has its own themed parade with elaborate floats, costumes, and a ball after the parade. Some of today's most popular krewes are Rex, Zulu, Bacchus, Endymion, Proteus, and Hermes. Krewes often invite celebrities to be the King or Queen of their parade. For example, New Orleans native Louis Armstrong was the king of Zulu in 1949.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans Has Been Cancelled a Few Times

Lit up street in New Orleans
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Since 1857, the City of New Orleans has canceled Mardi Gras at least a dozen times. Most cancellations were a result of wartime activities, specifically the Civil War and both World Wars. In the 1870s, an outbreak of yellow fever caused many citizens to forgo the celebration. Since the end of World War II, Mardi Gras goers have always had the opportunity to celebrate. Even after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the city's Lower Ninth Ward flooded after the levees broke in 2006, Mardi Gras took place. The hurricane affected many of the city's musicians and artists, so the festival was scaled down from previous years.

Mardi Gras Colors Have Specific Meanings

Green, gold, and purple Mardi Gras mask hanging on a street lamp
Credit: Lynne Mitchell/ iStock

If you've been to a Mardi Gras celebration, seen photos, or watched shows or documentaries about New Orleans, you likely have seen the Mardi Gras colors of green, purple, and gold splattered around. Historically, each krewe has chosen themes for their Mardi Gras parades, with floats and costumes to match. In 1892, the Krewe of Rex chose the theme "Symbolism of Colors" and used green, purple, and gold. Green signifies faith, purple signifies justice, and gold signifies power. Today, parades are colorful, and floats can include more than green, gold, and purple. However, those who are collecting beads and doubloons will still notice the regular use of Mardi Gras colors.

King Cakes Have Plastic Babies Inside Them to Represent Jesus

An uncut king cake surrounded by Mardi Gras decorations
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A king cake is a special bakery item only served during Mardi Gras. The cake, a mix of a coffee cake and french pastry, is decorated in Mardi Gras colors, as a way to signify a crown with jewels that the Wise Men who visited baby Jesus wore. Each cake has a small plastic baby hidden inside to represent Jesus as a baby. During Mardi Gras celebrations, people look for the baby in their piece of cake. The winner is "King" or "Queen" for the day and must host the next Mardi Gras party. The first King Cake appeared in 1871 at a ball, but the cake had a golden bean instead of a tiny plastic baby.