Purple, green and gold — the colors of a traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration stand for justice, faith and power. This year, Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday,” falls on March 8, and even if you’re not Catholic or from New Orleans, there will be a lot of people wearing purple, green and gold beads, having a party and maybe even eating a King cake.
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Mardi Gras is celebrated in cities around the globe in a variety of ways and came from the practice of eating rich and fatty foods the last night before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday. Also called Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras is always 47 days before Easter Sunday and is part of the Carnivale season that traditionally begins on Jan. 6, 12 days after Christmas, on Epiphany Day. Some countries celebrate a Carnivale season with merry-making, pageants, parades and outdoor feasts in the weeks prior to Ash Wednesday.
In Sweden, Fat Tuesday is known as “Fettisdagen” and people eat marzipan and whipped cream-filled cardamom buns, but in New Orleans, parades with floats bearing masked and flamboyantly costumed royalty throwing beads, gold coins, cups and stuffed animals; krewes and fancy dress balls; King Cake; opulently beaded and masked “Mardi Gras Indians” and a wild blend of revelry, licentious behavior and occasional violence have all become part of the Mardi Gras tradition.
In the United States Mardi Gras was first celebrated in 1703 in Mobile, Ala., which was the first capital of French Lousiana. French Catholic settlers brought the tradition with them. When the capital moved to New Orleans in 1723, the Mardi Gras celebrations came with it. Celebrations consisted of elegant society balls and, in later years, night-time street processions with masked people in carriages or on horseback. Floats were imported from France.
Private social clubs formed “krewes” to organize and fund the processions and to build the floats once they were no longer imported and this tradition continues to the present. Each krewe decides on its individual theme for the year, kept secret until the day of the parade. They choose a king who rides on their float. Krewes are responsible for one of the most treasured traditions — the Mardi Gras throws. A krewe known as the Twelfth Night Revelers tossed the first Mardi Gras trinkets to onlookers in 1871. Beads, gold coins, cups and stuffed animals are thrown to the crowd from float riders.
In 1872, the first daytime Mardi Gras parade came into being, complete with a Mardi Gras king, Rex, who chose the purple, green and gold Mardi Gras colors. A Mardi Gras flag and song were introduced at the parade as well. Three years later, the Mardi Gras Act made Mardi Gras a legal holiday in Louisiana.
Mardi Gras is full of secrets and masking one’s identity has always been a tradition. Float riders must remain masked by law and the identity of the “Mardi Gras Indians” is protected by elaborate masks and costumes. The Indians aren’t Indians at all — they are usually blacks from the inner parts of the city. The Mardi Gras Indians have had their own parade for more than 100 years and in the early years things could get violent, as the Indians looked to Mardi Gras as a way of settling scores anonymously.
Another traditional part of the Mardi Gras celebration is the King Cake. Epiphany, celebrated 12 days after Christmas, honors the coming of the wise men bearing gifts and a special cake called “The King’s Cake” is baked in honor of the three kings. In New Orleans, the braided brioche is covered with sugar toppings of purple, green and gold and a small plastic baby is inserted into the cake to represent the Christ child. Whoever receives the slice of cake with the baby inside is asked to host the following year’s King Cake party.
Today, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is best known for the way women receive their beads. Beads are thrown from floats in the parade, but since the parade does not go through the French Quarter, revel-makers have evolved a unique method for dispersing beads — one not an acknowledged part of Mardi Gras tradition.
Whether you purchase your beads at the Dollar Store or flip your shirt in the French Quarter, Mardi Gras celebrations are growing in popularity.