The History of Mardi Gras

By Madison Gaston

When we think if Mardi Gras, we think of music, parades, foods, floats, and colorful beads; but, have you ever actually wondered what the unique holiday is about?

The original tradition of Mardi Gras has lasted for thousands of years to celebrate spring and fertility in Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. Once Christianity populated Rome, the Romans decided to combine their pagan traditions with their new Christian traditions instead of getting rid of their pagan festivities. As a result, Mardi Gras became a celebration before Lent, the 40 days of fasting between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Mardi Gras quickly spread to many countries around Europe including France, Germany, Spain, and England. The words “Mardi Gras” actually means “Fat Tuesday” in French. Traditionally before Lent, celebrators would binge on as much food as they could so they would be prepared to fast. 

Around 1699, when French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville settled in present day New Orleans, Louisiana, they celebrated Mardi Gras by naming their landing spot Point du Mardi Gras. From then on, New Orleans became an iconic place of celebration for Mardi Gras with lavish dinners, parades, and masked parties. However, the rowdy parades complimented with colorful costumes did not become a tradition until around 1830, when a group of students emulated the celebrations they saw in Paris. The carnival and parades quickly spread to other countries; for example, Brazil’s week long Carnival celebrations incorporate native, European, and African traditions. 

Now that we understand the tradition of the Mardi Gras parades and carnivals, where did King Cakes and colorful beads come from? Technically, the Mardi Gras celebration begins on January 6, or the day that Jesus first showed himself to the three wisemen. To represent this epiphany, French Christians started baking a pastry known as King Cake, a sort of colorful coffee cake. A tiny plastic baby is hidden inside the cake; the first person to find the plastic baby is said to have good luck. The cake is decorated with the the royal color purple to represent “Justice”, green for “Faith”, and gold for “Power”. These colors are shown through Mardi Gras beads, which were worn in Renaissance Era England as festival customs. In the late 1800’s, inexpensive purple, green, and gold beads were being thrown from parade floats for people to wear. 

So next year on February 25, when you watch parades, eat lots of cake, and wear colorful beads, you can understand Mardi Gras’ longstanding French, German, English, and Brazilian history.