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17 Things You Never Knew About Mardi Gras

Everyone's heard of this lively day of parades, masks, and beads—but most people don't really know why it's celebrated. Here's the surprising history behind the holiday, observed this year on Tuesday, March 5.

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Mardi Gras, New Orleans, USAAnonymous/AP/Shutterstock

Mardi Gras dates back to the Middle Ages

Although we associate Mardi Gras with New Orleans, its roots actually go back to Europe in the Middle Ages. In the Catholic religion, Lent comprises the 40 days leading up to Easter. It’s a time of fasting and sacrifice, and many people today still give something up for Lent. The day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent, is known as Fat Tuesday or “Mardi Gras” in French, so named because people would stuff themselves before the period of fasting began. Naturally, this turned into an excuse for a big party and became a secular celebration known for overindulgence in food and drink.

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colorful Mardi Gras crown decorationMike Flippo/Shutterstock

It might also have pagan roots

Some historians say this Catholic feast, like other religious events, blended with pagan rituals to form the Mardi Gras holiday as we know it today. Celebrations of spring, the season of fertility and rebirth, included the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia in mid-February. To make it easier to convert pagans, the Catholic Church likely incorporated this raucous celebration with a feast leading up to Lent. Read up on 9 other myths and legends about Easter traditions.

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Mobile, Alabama, USA downtown skyline.Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

It started in Mobile, Alabama

So how did Mardi Gras make its way to America? Contrary to popular belief, the festival didn’t actually begin in New Orleans, but rather in present-day Mobile, Alabama. The first Mardi Gras occurred when French explorer brothers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville were camped on the Gulf Coast in 1699. Realizing it was Mardi Gras, March 2, they named the spot Point du Mardi Gras. Bienville became the founder of New Orleans and Mobile—where the first American Mardi Gras celebration is said to have been established in 1703. To this day, Mobile puts on a huge festival for Mardi Gras. Here are more historic firsts from every U.S. state.

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New Orleans Celebrates Mardi Gras, USA - 13 Feb 2018Dan Anderson/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“Krewes” run New Orleans’ parades

Although Mardi Gras parties and balls were thrown in New Orleans during the 18th and early 19th centuries, the modern parades as we know them began in 1857, when the first was put on by a secret society called the Mistick Krewe of Comus (whose original members were actually from Mobile). More krewes were established as years went on, including Krewes of Rex, Proteus, and Zulu, which paraded their own floats. The krewes today continue to organize and fund the Mardi Gras parades through dues, fundraising, and merchandise. Each krewe comes up with an elaborate theme for their floats each year and puts a huge amount of effort into the preparation. But no tickets are needed for the parades, which is why Mardi Gras is called “The Greatest Free Show on Earth.”

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Mardi Gras, New Orleans, USAGerald Herbert/AP/Shutterstock

There are more parades leading up to Mardi Gras

Although Mardi Gras itself is one day, Mardi Gras season, known as Carnival, begins weeks before on Twelfth Night, literally the twelfth night after Christmas (as in the “12 Days of Christmas” referred to in the song). The end of the 12 nights, January 6, is the Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian tradition. It’s also known as Three Kings Day, recognizing when the Three Wise Men came bearing gifts for baby Jesus. Carnival may get its name from the Latin carnelevarium, meaning to remove meat, as is done during Lent. In New Orleans, the entire season of Carnival is full of parades, not just on Mardi Gras itself—in fact, if you visit earlier in the season, you can likely score better deals on hotels while still enjoying the festivities.

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Mardi Gras, New Orleans, USAGerald Herbert/AP/Shutterstock

Why beads are thrown

If you attend a Mardi Gras parade, chances are you will be overwhelmed with beads thrown from the floats, as well as toys, stuffed animals, cups, doubloons, and other goodies. (Pro tip: Bring a bag to hold them all.) All you need to do to get one is yell, “Throw me something, mister!” (No “flashing” is required.) But how did the tradition of “throws” begin? In the early years of the parades, these trinkets may have been tossed as an incentive to get people to watch the parades (as if they needed another reason to celebrate!). While some throws may end up in the garbage on Ash Wednesday, signature collectibles from the krewes are beautifully decorated and worth holding onto, including Zulu coconuts, Muses shoes, Nyx purses, Alla genie lamps, and Carrollton shrimp boots.

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New Orleans, Louisiana, USA - 2016: A girl watches a parade during the Mardi Gras celebrations.Roberto Michel/Shutterstock

Mardi Gras is family-friendly

Despite what you may see in pictures or on TV, people who live in New Orleans will tell you Mardi Gras actually a very kid-friendly event. The drunken debauchery is largely contained to Bourbon Street and the French Quarter—where most parades don’t even go due to the narrowness of the streets. But you should be prepared to attend with children: Set up camp near a porta-potty (or near your hotel room), bring snacks and water, and tell your kids what to do if they get lost and to be careful near the floats. Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, is known to be even more kid-friendly, in part because it doesn’t draw the hoards of tourists that the Cresent City celebration does. Here are more of the best family-friendly destinations in every state.

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Green, gold, and purple Mardi Gras beads with Fleur de lis backgroundLeigh Prather/Shutterstock

It has traditional colors

Have you ever noticed many Mardi Gras beads and costumes feature the colors of green, purple, and gold? While this color combo is certainly vivid and dazzling, there’s actually a history behind it. The hues date back to 1892, when the Krewe of Rex chose its float theme as “Symbolism of Colors:” The green was for faith, gold for power, and purple for justice. Although it’s a little unclear why these colors represented these symbols, purple and gold are definitely regal, and the green is a nice complement to them. Interestingly, legend says Louisiana State University chose its colors of purple and gold because of the availability of Mardi Gras merchandise in those hues—leaving rival Tulane University the green. Is this true? It can’t be confirmed, but it makes for a good story!

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Usa New Orleans Mardi Gras - Feb 2015Dan Anderson/EPA/Shutterstock

Mardi Gras has yearly royalty

Another reason royal purple may have been chosen is to honor the kings and queens of Mardi Gras—yes, this holiday has royalty, possibly hearkening back to Three Kings Day, which kicks off Carnival. The tradition began in 1872 when the Krewe of Rex proclaimed the first Rex, King of Carnival. Now, each krewe chooses a king and queen every year, announced at private—and exclusive—formal balls. While you don’t need an invitation to see the parades, you do need to know a krewe member to get an invite to a ball. Royal courts are also chosen. Some krewes don’t make the identity of the king and queen public; if the royals parade, they may wear masks. These are 15 most photographed tourist attractions in the Americas.

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Homemade Colorful Mardi Gras King Cake for Fat TuesdayBrent Hofacker/Shutterstock

The history of king cakes

This traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras treat is fit for a king! It’s a rich cake that’s braided into a circle and covered with glaze and sugar in the Mardi Gras colors. King cakes may also be filled with cinnamon, chocolate, or cream cheese. Again tying into Three Kings Day and the infant Jesus, the king cake conceals a tiny baby figurine, and the person who finds it in their slice gets good luck—as well as the duty of making the next cake. Similar cakes are made in France and Mexico in celebration of Three Kings Day. In New Orleans, the king cake is also said to be connected to another old tradition of baking a ring into a cake to determine the king or queen of Mardi Gras balls.

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A group of venetian, mardi gras mask or disguise on a dark backgroundMike Flippo/Shutterstock

What’s behind the masks

The tradition of wearing masks during the revelries of Carnival aren’t new, but masks have taken on a special meaning for New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. In concealing identities, Mardi Gras masks were a way for people to hide social constraints, class status, and also their race at a time when those factors might have otherwise excluded them from the celebrations. Although masked Mardi Gras celebrations were outlawed in the early 19th century, they were renewed with vigor as the parade era began. Today, masks may be used by krewes to protect the identity of their members, but they’re usually just worn for fun. In fact, it’s usually illegal in Louisiana to wear a mask in public—with an exception for Mardi Gras.

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Mardi Gras Glambeaux, New Orleans, USAGerald Herbert/AP/Shutterstock

Why flambeaux are carried

From the French for “flame,” these torches were originally carried out of necessity so parade watchers could see them at night, with the first flambeaux used by the Mistick Krewe of Comus in 1857. Flame bearers were traditionally from African-American communities, and the flambeaux evolved into an art form over the years. The carriers twirled and danced with their torches, earning tips for their performances. Today, krewes still use the flames in their parades, with the fire throwers even developing characters, as well as incorporating modern safety precautions and tech-savvy LED lighting. For something more low-key, these are 11 of the best small-town festivals in America.

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2017 Jazz and Heritage Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 2, New Orleans, USA - 29 Apr 2017Invision/AP/Shutterstock/Shutterstock

Who are the Mardi Gras Indians?

In the past, African-Americans were excluded from Mardi Gras parades due to slavery, segregation, and racism, so they developed their own “tribes” with parades in their own New Orleans neighborhoods, including the Zulu krewe. The connection with Native Americans is thought to be a tribute to the indigenous people who helped blacks escape slavery by accepting them into their tribes. The Mardi Gras Indians are costumed in traditional ceremonial dress that’s hand-sewn and takes all year to create; after the outfits are worn for one season, they’re disassembled and the beads reused. Their Mardi Gras parade routes aren’t announced, so you’ll be lucky to spot one; they also appear during “Super Sunday,” the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. (In recent years, there’s been discussion about whether this continued use of Native American traditions is cultural appropriation.)

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MOBILE, AL -25 AUG 2018- View of the Mobile Carnival Museum, located in the historic Bernstein-Bush mansion on Government Street in downtown Mobile, Alabama.EQRoy/Shutterstock

There are Mardi Gras museums

If you can’t get enough of Mardi Gras, or are visiting after the revelry has ended, don’t worry: The holiday is celebrated all year long at these museums. Across Louisiana from New Orleans, the city of Lake Charles is home to the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu, where visitors can learn about the history of the holiday and view a large collection of Mardi Gras costumes. New Orleans also has Mardi Gras World, a working studio where visitors can see the floats being created, try on costumes, and sample king cake. In Mobile, Alabama, you’ll find the Mobile Carnival Museum, which celebrates the history and tradition of the “birthplace of Mardi Gras.”

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NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA USA - JAN 22 2016: Historic building in the French Quarter in New Orleans, USA. Tourism provides a large source of revenue after the 2005 devastation of Hurricane Katrina.GTS Productions/Shutterstock

Mardi Gras is a holiday in New Orleans

Mardi Gras is an official holiday in the city, thanks to Louisiana Governor Henry C. Warmoth’s Mardi Gras Act of 1875. Although there’s a lot of activity happening in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, visitors should be prepared that more restaurants and businesses will be closed than they anticipate. Schools and banks may also be closed. But, the government isn’t involved in the actual planning of the celebrations—the krewes do that. The only involvement from the city is to issue parade permits. Here are more iconic adventures you should take in each of the 50 states.

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NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA,USA - FEBRUARY 8: Brightly colored masks adorn a railing in the French Quarter as Mardi Gras approaches in New Orleans on February 8, 2013.Sue Stokes/Shutterstock

Know this Mardi Gras phrase

Although there’s not an official slogan for Mardi Gras, you’ll probably hear laissez le bon temps rouler (French for “let the good times roll) quite often. But this is simply a translation of the English expression; it’s not heard in other French-speaking countries. Pronounced “lay-say le bon tom roo-lay,” it’s part of the specifically Creole words and phrases used in New Orleans and around Louisiana. How should you respond if someone says it to you? You can say, “Oui, cher!”

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VARIOUS Woman wearing a mask, Carnival in Venice, San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Veneto, ItalyMarc Schmerbeck/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

Mardi Gras is not just celebrated in NOLA

Although New Orleans is the city most associated with Mardi Gras, it’s actually huge in other parts of the United States—and the world. More parades occur around Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, including previously mentioned Mobile, Alabama. San Diego and French-founded St. Louis, Missouri, put on parades as well. Other predominantly Catholic cities and countries worldwide celebrate Mardi Gras and Carnival, including Brazil, Quebec City, Canada, and Venice, Italy. Venice is also known for its Carnival masks and huge masquerade festivals. These celebrations may be iconic, but none compare to the 10 most popular cultural attractions in the world.

Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a regular contributor to’s Culture and Travel sections. She also writes about health and wellness, parenting, and pregnancy. Previously editor-in-chief of Twist magazine, Donvito has also written for Parade Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Parents Magazine online, among others. Here work was selected by author Elizabeth Gilbert to be included in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. She earned a BA in English and History from Rutgers University.