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6 Things You Never Knew About Mardi Gras
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February 4, 2019
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John Ferri
John is a writer and editor based in Tacoma, Washington. In addition to travel, he covers food, beer, wine, the arts and adventure sports, among other leisure lifestyle topics.
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Like its mysterious masks, costumes and secret krewe codes of conduct, the origins of Mardi Gras itself are shrouded in ambiguity. Donning disguises was meant to protect identities and allow for ultimate abandon without consequence during the heartiest party of the year. You see, Mardi Gras translates from French into “Fat Tuesday.” The Christian feasts of the Epiphany season lead up to Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, so Fat Tuesday makes sense as a final blowout. Probably due to the church’s prohibitions on meat and sex during Lent, the parties got more elaborate in Europe, then spread geographically and evolved into the modern pagan Carnival. Understandably, neither Catholic nor Protestant church leaders wanted historic responsibility, so Mardi Gras evolution is vague.

Mardi Gras Falls on a Different Day Every Year

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Due to its connection to Christian history, Mardi Gras dates are adjusted each year to coincide with when Easter falls on the calendar. The Christian holiday celebrating Christ’s resurrection can be on any Sunday between March 23 and April 25. Mardi Gras always starts 47 days before Easter, so that it can wrap up with Ash Wednesday, bringing the party to a close just in time for Lent. According to Mardigrasneworleans.com, the most popular time to visit New Orleans is the extended weekend before Mardi Gras. For 2019 that means starting your revelry on March 1 or 2 and staying through Ash Wednesday, March 6. For all of this year’s correct dates and a full schedule of events, Mardigrasneworleans.com is an excellent resource.

The First North American Mardi Gras was Celebrated in Alabama — not Louisiana

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The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce lists the city's first Mardi Gras celebration in 1703, the year following its founding. The French holiday is thought to have been brought to North America by French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville. On March 3, 1699, while encamped some 60 miles from the future site of New Orleans, he recognized the date of Fat Tuesday being celebrated in France by naming his campsite Point du Mardi Gras and throwing a modest party. It was only a few years later that settlers donned masks for Mardi Gras in the just-founded city of Mobile, in present-day Alabama. Early Mardi Gras dates in New Orleans are several years later. Considering the two cities’ proximity along the Gulf of Mexico, this isn’t surprising.

There Are Multiple Mardi Gras Museums

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They cover different aspects of the festival, so each of several New Orleans Mardi Gras museums has its place. The Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum, for example, is located in Arnaud’s Restaurant and features the ornates costumes of its namesake. Meanwhile, Mardi Gras World is a tourist attraction with much broader scope. Here, you can tour the 300,000-square-foot working warehouse where Mardi Gras parade floats are made, becoming immersed in the design and craftsmanship required to create the complex, fantasy themed floats. Yet another Fat Tuesday treasure trove, the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture delves into the more individual funkiness and flair that goes into celebrations.

Mardi Gras’ King Cake Has Biblical Roots

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The “king” in King Cake harks back to Jesus receiving gifts from the wise men. A coffee-cake-and-French-pastry mashup, King Cake is traditionally made from rich, brioche dough laden with cinnamon and laced into a braided loaf glazed with purple, green and gold icing. The colors are said to represent royalty in honor of the magi visiting the manger during Epiphany. The key to the cake’s modern tradition, though, is the tiny plastic baby Jesus baked into each delicious delicacy. According to tradition, whoever gets the baby in their bite is crowned “king” for the day, and they must provide next year’s cake and host a Mardi Gras party.

It’s Illegal to Wear Masks in New Orleans Except on Mardi Gras

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For many, the masked mystery of Mardi Gras is a big part of the holiday’s special mystique. Elaborate, full-face masks and subtle eye coverings alike lend an air of sensual excitement to the festivities. While masquerade balls and disguised krewes are enduring traditions, the wearing of masks is reserved for this special time of year — and there are rules. Many krewes, for example, require their members to wear masks while riding on floats. Yet, a New Orleans city ordinance prohibits masks except during Mardi Gras. On Fat Tuesday, the final day, masks must be removed by 6 p.m. This is all according to New Orleans, Louisiana, Code of Ordinances, Section 54-313.

Mardi Gras and Carnival are the Same Holiday

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The interchangeable terms Mardi Gras and Carnival can be confusing, but it all comes down to one long party. The practice of eating, drinking and enjoying to excess before giving up vices for 40 days started in Europe. It was later adopted by Brazil and other countries as Carnival, also running from the beginning of Epiphany to Fat Tuesday. In the minds of many, Mardi Gras referred strictly to Fat Tuesday, but over time the Mardi Gras season and its timeline have become synonymous with Carnival.