By Bill Elliott

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Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day as it is called in England originated in the Middle Ages. It was a tradition to prevent waste and use up items such as milk, fats, eggs, fish and meat that were regarded as restricted during Lent which always begins on Ash Wednesday. In France the tradition was called "Mardi Gras" which means "Fat Tuesday," and a fat ox was ceremoniously paraded through the streets as part of the festival.

So when did it all really begin? It is said that it dates back thousands of years to pagan spring and fertility rites. I quote the wisdom of my ancient Britannica Encyclopedia which was published in the 1920s and is untarnished by the microchip mediocrity of thinly veiled internet marketing. It tells us that Carnival, when translated from Latin, means "to lighten or put aside flesh,"  and that  "There is little doubt that this period of license represents a compromise which the church always inclined to make with the pagan festivals and that the carnival really represents the Roman Saturnalia."   

The short version is that Mardi Gras is a celebration that that precedes the fasting of Lent. Its current form evolved from Catholicism but has lost most of the religious connection and is now freely celebrated as a secular festival by persons of many religious persuasions. Versions of Carnival are celebrated around the world with the largest being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the second largest in New Orleans, Louisiana..

It is the season and not the day that is properly called "Carnival."  The season begins on January 6th and ends on the day before Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday begins the period of fasting and abstinence called "Lent."   "Mardi Gras" (Fat Tuesday) is the last day of the Carnival season. However, the term "Carnival," and "Mardi Gras" are often interchanged, and when someone says they are going to Mardi Gras it may mean the day "Fat Tuesday" or it may mean weeks of festivities in the Big Easy. Mardi Gras was first mentioned in North America in 1699 when the French explorer Pierre LeMoyne d'Iberville christened his March 3rd campsite on the Mississippi River "Point du Mardi Gras" in keeping with the holiday that was being celebrated in France on that date.

In   1703 Carnival began to be celebrated in the newly established community of Mobile, Alabama which holds claim to being the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the United States. The lore is that transplants from Mobile were responsible for forming the Mistick  Krewe of Comus in New Orleans in 1856.

We might say that the Carnival season religiously begins on January sixth of each year.  How so?  The season begins on the Catholic feast of the Epiphany which always occurs twelve days after Christmas. That’s the easy date. Trying to figure out when Mardi Gras ends on your own is a bit confusing.  I find it easier to just believe "them", whoever "them" are.  It has to do with when Easter occurs, an event that to me seems to hop around in the calendar like a rabbit.  But thanks to the internet, I now fully understand and will explain it to my readers.

The date Easter is celebrated is connected to the first Paschal full moon occurring on or after the spring equinox.  The Paschal full moon is not the real moon and the  spring equinox is not an automobile part even though it sounds like one.  Now, the spring equinox can be computed in a couple of ways but the Gregorian calendar recognizes the event as occurring on March 21. After that date you wait for the Paschal full moon to occur because you know that Easter is set as the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon. Thus Easter will always fall on or between March 21 and April 25th.

Still with me?  Now we know that Ash Wednesday is the day after Fat Tuesday which  marks the end of the Carnival season.  To find Ash Wednesday we have to backtrack six weeks from the date of Easter Sunday and then backtrack four more days to Wednesday. The rest is simple. Now you know that Fat Tuesday will be yesterday. 

Again,   I find it easier to use the alternate method which is just to believe "them.".  It has never failed me and Carnival season has always arrived and departed exactly when they (them) said it would. The important thing to keep in mind is that in some years Mardi Gras can occur as early as February 3rd, a date when the weather can be quite cold out, so plan your costuming and outerwear accordingly.


Wearing masks at Carnival dates back to the European celebrations and possibly back to the pagan customs of Rome. The masks conceal the identity of the revelers and allow them to behave in ways that may not be socially appropriate under normal circumstances. They are worn for both the parades, lavish parties, and of course masked balls. 

When the Spanish were in power from 1762 to 1800 they outlawed parties and balls that celebrated Carnival.  After the United States purchased Louisiana in the early 1800s the authorities banned the masked balls and public masks but the effort eventually failed and the celebration was accepted. 

Krewes are the social organizations that organize and put on the parades and  lavish  masked balls for their memberships. In recent years new laws have been instituted that eliminate the ability of Krewes to be selective in their membership in ways that challenge the contemporary interpretation of the spirit of equality.

There are dozens of parades during the Carnival season. Typically a parade will have a theme. It is the krewe members in masks that ride the floats and throw beads, doubloons, cups,  and trinkets to the crowds.  The first Mardi Gras parade was held in Mobile, Alabama in the 1700s. The first Mardi Gras street parade in New Orleans was in 1837.  Today, in addition to the parades with floats, there are marching clubs and groups that decorate truck beds and form up in  parades. 

 In 1872 the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Alexis Alexandrovich Romanoff visited New Orleans. The Romanoff house colors were purple, green, and gold and , to honor him, the Rex Organization  (which was founded in that year)  selected those colors as the official Mardi Gras colors The Rex parade in 1892 had the theme "Symbolism of Colors," and affirmed the meaning with purple representing justice, green faith, and gold power.  

The king cake is a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages.  The twelfth night after the birth of Christ marks the celebration of the Epiphany which marks the end of Christmas and the visit of the Three Wise Men or Kings to the baby Jesus.  Along with the pageants and gift giving came the celebratory cake which has carried down to today's colorful Mardi Gras king cake.  If you celebrate Carnival and Mardi Gras in a group be sure to get a king cake.  It is part of the Mardi Gras ritual. Today it is made of braided Danish pastry, laced with cinnamon, and iced in the purple, green, and gold colors of Mardi Gras. A king cake will have a tiny baby hidden in it and tradition is if you find the baby in your piece you must buy the next king cake or host the next party. Stories differ on the origin of the tradition of the baby in the  king cake  but most trace back to the celebration of the visit of the three Wise Men (or Kings) to the baby Jesus on the twelfth night after Christmas. In some instances a bean, walnut, pecan, ring, or trinket has been used. Today, vendors often include a plastic baby separate from the cake.

When you live in bayou country the Cajun music gets in your blood.  But Mardi Gras music is different.  Mardi Gras music makes you dance and strut with umbrellas. You can't help it. If you don't have an umbrella you just pretend you have one and dance and  strut away.

New Orleans has a tradition in brass band parades where those who fall in and follow the band to enjoy the music are called" the second line" and their dancing and  twirling of parasols or handkerchiefs is called "second lining."  The main or "first line" is the actual club that makes up the parade with the brass band.

"Second Line" is the name of the tune that you hear everywhere during Mardi Gras. I also hear it called the "Mardi Gras Song."  Who cares what you call it. If it wanted to be words it would have lyrics, right? When that syncopated brass band tune blasts out you know its Mardi Gras and you lose control of your body and start dancing. Second Line is played everywhere during the Mardi Gras season and constantly reminds you of your mission….to have a great time.  

There are plenty of other Mardi Gras songs around and they all do justice to the celebration.

Throws are the items that are thrown to the crowds from the floats. The earliest throws were trinkets. The necklace throws in New Orleans date back into the nineteenth century when, thanks to the Rex organization, inexpensive necklaces of glass beads became an instant success. Today, most of the necklaces are made of plastic. 

Louisiana has what may be a unique law that limits liability for krewes and organizations that put on the Mardi Gras parades. It states that anyone attending a parade assumes the risk of being struck by the things that are traditionally thrown.  The law specifically includes beads, cups, coconuts, and doubloons as traditional throws.

Every Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana generates its own flavor. For the convenience of my reader I am dividing up the celebrations into several types but that is somewhat unfair. Capturing a definition of a Mardi Gras celebration in any particular Louisiana location is like trying to capture the vapors from a briskly boiling gumbo. You really have to be there to see it and experience it. 

New Orleans - The Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the granddaddy in the United States.  

New Orleans graciously opens its arms to the world for what is a hugely raucous event. To the novice Carnival visitor it appears that the social norms that govern day to day living have collapsed. But don't be fooled. New Orleans knows how to throw a party and make sure that everyone has a great time.  While the authorities may wink at many victimless behaviors that press the puritan aspects of social norms it does not tolerate activity that is not in the spirit of fun for everyone. The parades are spectacular and can be viewed from locations that accommodate the tastes of families with children as well as locations that accommodate the more boisterously inclined.

South Central Louisiana and Acadiana  -  Lafayette  is an urban cornerstone of  what Louisiana calls "Acadiana."

The Cajun flavor of this city is as "thick as gumbo," and residents and visitors alike know how to celebrate the Carnival season.  They begin days in advance with a full slate of parades and events that always lead up to a memorable Fat Tuesday.

Numerous small communities in South Louisiana feature a "Courier de Mardi Gras."  This is a tradition where costumed masked riders on horseback forage about the area begging for the ingredients for a community gumbo to be shared later that night.  It is all in good fun and the debauched costumed riders with their identities hidden are typically drinking, shouting, and singing.  It is a delightful display of Louisiana rural culture.

Southwest Louisiana -  Lake Charles has become the second largest Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana in terms of the number of parading organizations. 

The season is kicked off with Twelfth Night celebration where the public has a chance to view the costuming of the royalty at an indoor event where the royalty parades before the attendees. Lake Charles also sports a Mardi Gras museum where traditions, history, and artifacts preserve the cultural heritage of Mardi Gras

Northern and Central Louisiana - The northern and central cities of Louisiana celebrate the Carnival season with a full complement of parades, krewes, and merriment.

The celebration of Mardi Gras has become pervasive and universal in Louisiana and it would be hard put to find a community that does not participate in the festivities on some level.  

A nice thing about Mardi Gras is that the experience is different no matter where you celebrate it, and every celebration will leave you with the fondest of memories.

I have been a participant in countless Mardi Gras celebrations and I find myself musing that perhaps this Carnival and Mardi Gras thing is nothing but a formula of yin and yang;  a balancing of what we subconsciously experience as oppressive dark holes of  daily self denial and restraint  against this joyful bursting out  in  creative display where we energetically and outrageously   thumb our noses at what we know we are and what  we know we are not. Whatever. But there is one thing that is certain.  Marti Gras will make you smile.

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