What is Mardi Gras? Have a Ball Learning All About “Fat Tuesday”

Important Traditions of Mardi Gras

Many customs have come to define our modern idea of Mardi Gras. Here, we take a look at some of the most significant traditions associated with the celebration.


What is Mardi Gras History of Mardi Gras 2019

Stock Photos from Tom Pumphret/Shutterstock

Parades and Balls

The first Mardi Gras parade occurred in New Orleans on Feb. 24, 1857.  This event was put on by a club of businessman called the Mistick Krewe of Comus (a “krewe” is a social organization responsible for the Mardi Gras festivities). It featured music, floats, a fire-lit procession called a flambeaux (“torches” in French), and green, gold, and purple decorations. As the Mistick Krewe of Comus was a secret society, they wore masks to hide their identities.

Over the coming years, new krewes emerged, culminating in more Mardi Gras parades and extravagant masquerade balls. While the public was invited to attend the former, the balls were exclusive, with only krewe members and their guests allowed to attend.

Today, several krewes—including three “Super Krewes”—put on annual parades and balls in New Orleans. At the parades, you can expect to find extravagant floats, jubilant music, and throws—trinkets like plastic beads and doubloons that are tossed into the audience. Balls remain mostly private, keeping Mardi Gras' mystery alive.


What is Mardi Gras History of Mardi Gras 2019

Stock Photos fromMike Flippo/Shutterstock


The tradition of donning masks as a method of escapism is an inherent part of New Orleans' Mardi Gras. However, its origins can be found in Carnival celebrations across Europe—specifically, in Venice, Italy.

Historically, people in Venice wore masks between the Feast of St. Stephen on December 26 and midnight on Shrove Tuesday. Due to the popular demand of the craft, mascherari (“mask makers”) occupied a comfortable place in society. In addition to a guild, they even had their own set of laws.

Venetian—and, in turn, Mardi Gras masks—come in different styles. Among the most popular are the Bauta, which covers the whole face; the Columbina, which conceals half; and the Medico della Peste, which is characterized by its long, “plague doctor” beak. In each case, the masks are renowned for their beautiful embellishments, which range from paint and feathers to crystals and gold leaf.


What is Mardi Gras History of Mardi Gras 2019

Stock Photos from DeliriumTrigger/Shutterstock

King Cake

Another custom derived from Europe is the king cake. This traditional dessert originated in France, where it is known as the galette des rois. Inspired by the three kings—a trio who, according to the Bible, brought gifts to the newborn baby Jesus—the king cake has been adapted by countries all over the world, becoming an intrinsic element of Epiphany.

While the dough, decorations, and flavors vary from region to region, most king cakes have one thing in common: they traditionally hide a fève, or “bean” Whoever finds this bean (often a small figurine) in their slice of cake wins, and is crowned “king” for the day.

In the United States, the king cake is eaten not on Epiphany, but during the Mardi Gras festivities. It is usually ring-shaped or twisted, and is dusted with green, gold, and purple sugar. The fève is usually a small porcelain or plastic figurine of a baby, believed to represent Jesus.


Mardi Gras Today

What is Mardi Gras History of Mardi Gras 2019

Stock Photos from Suzanne C. Grim/Shutterstock

While Carnival remains an important festival in countries around the world, Mardi Gras has evolved into a New Orleans treasure. Every year, millions of people visit the city, where they can catch a glimpse of its dozens of parades, don an Italian-inspired mask, and devour a delicious king cake in order to laissez les bons temps rouler (“let the good times roll”)!


Related Articles:

What is Chinese New Year? Unraveling the History of the Enchanting Festival

Día de los Muertos: How Mexico Celebrates Its Annual “Day of the Dead”

The History of Halloween: Exploring the Age-Old Origins of the Enchanting Holiday

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Kelly Richman-Abdou

Kelly Richman-Abdou is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. An art historian living in Paris, Kelly was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in Art History from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. When she’s not writing, you can find Kelly wandering around Paris, whether she’s leading a tour (as a guide, she has been interviewed by BBC World News America and France 24) or simply taking a stroll with her husband and two tiny daughters.
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