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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What is Mardi Gras?

It's okay, you can admit it. You've always heard of Mardi Gras. You know it happens in New Orleans. You know it involves a lot of beads, some crazy costumes, and a parade. You may even know that you see colorful cakes at the bakery called king cakes.

But you may not know what is.

You certainly aren't alone! In celebration of Mardi Gras today, we'd like to give you the run-down of what it actually all means. And we'll give you some beads for reading, too!

The story behind Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday," which is what today celebrates. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of fasting for Lent in Christianity. And what do you want to do before you fast? You pig out! On Fat Tuesday, it's tradition to eat the rich, fatty foods that many deny themselves over the Lenton period. Mardi Gras refers to the tradition of celebrating it! Since Ash Wednesday and the period of Lent are considered serious affairs, Mardi Gras takes the chance to turn everything topsy-turvy beforehand. Social norms are shattered, costumes and masks hide identities, and everyone joins the carnival.

The parade
The New Orleans Mardi Gras parades are organized by krewes (groups of people, usually affiliated with a specific organization or cause). These krewes put together floats and toss goodies to the crowd, such as beads, plastic cups, doubloons, and the like. Fun fact: since Mardi Gras is considered a traditional religious holiday, the event is not sponsored by businesses. The only exception was in 2006, after Hurricane Katrina caused such widespread destruction and debt, that the city accepted sponsorship.

The king cake
These tasty cakes are decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold. Each oblong, braided cake has a small bean or plastic baby placed somewhere inside it. Whoever has the slice with the baby in it has to buy next year's cake or throw next year's king cake party!

Why New Orleans?
That's a good question. Louisiana was settled by the French, and in the late 17th century, the Le Moyne brothers were sent to defend the territory. They arrived just before the holiday, so they celebrated it near where New Orleans is today (and named the spot in its honor). One of the brothers went on to found the capitol of French Louisiana (Mobile, Alabama today). As the territory grew, so did its festivities. By the time the capitol was moved to New Orleans, Mardi Gras festivities had been widely accepted by all its colonists, whether they were originally French or not!

We hope this answered some questions for you. Mardi Gras can be a very fun festival, even for those who don't observe the traditional holidays it celebrates! And, as promised, your beads:

Photo: Mark Gstohl on Flickr
What do you do to celebrate Mardi Gras?


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