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What Exactly is Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday)?

Learn all about the Carnival season so you can get out there to watch some parades, catch a Moon Pie, and laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll)!

Mardi Gras

What is Mardi Gras?


Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is a tradition celebrated by Roman Catholics characterized by the eating of rich, decadent foods on the day before Ash Wednesday (which marks the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of religious observance marked by fasting and penitence leading up to Easter Sunday). In current culture, popular practices now also include the wearing of masks and costumes to celebrations such as parades, balls, and parties.


Mardi Gras vs. Carnival


The term Mardi Gras (pronounced Mar-dee Grah) is often mistakenly used to refer to the several weeks of the Festival of Carnival, but technically it only refers to the very last day of it (Fat Tuesday). It is proper however to speak of the Mardi Gras season.


Mardi Gras Colors


Mardi Gras colors consist of purple (representing justice), green (which stands for faith), and gold (depicting power).


Where is Mardi Gras Celebrated?


Brought to the United States by French settlers, the Mystic Krewe of Comas staged first large scale Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1857. And while New Orleans still hosts some of the country's biggest parties, extravagant celebrations are also held in Mobile, Alabama; Biloxi, Mississippi; and Galveston, Texas.


What is a Mystic Society / Krewe?


Called mystic societies in Alabama and krewes in Louisiana and in Texas, these organizations present parades, parties, masquerade balls (bal masques), and other activities for the enjoyment of their members, guests, and the public. A krewe (pronounced like crew) is generally led by a captain or president and may host additional events throughout the year, many of which serve to support selected charities or civil causes.


Originally, krewes were secret and highly exclusive associations often limited to relatives of previous members; but now, many are open to anyone wishing to pay the membership fees which typically range from twenty bucks to thousands of dollars per year. Conditions for membership vary with some krewes requiring members to help build floats and/or make their own costumes, although many of the wealthier krewes just hire professionals to accomplish those tasks.


The King and the Cake


Commemorating the Epiphany (the visitation of the Biblical Magi to the Baby Jesus) krewes traditionally bake (or buy) a king cake in honor of the three kings. This ring of twisted sweet bread is topped with icing and decorated with sugary sprinkles or food coloring in traditional purple, green, and gold colors. Inside the cake is placed a small plastic 'baby' representing Jesus, and custom holds that the person who gets the slice of the cake with the trinket will be rewarded with good luck. This is also how krewes determine that year's reigning King and Queen for their upcoming Mardi Gras parade.


Parades & Floats


Each Mardi Gras parade is hosted by a particular krewe and consists of that krewe's own floats and sometimes the floats of other krewes that have been invited to participate, as well as additional units such as marching bands, etc. The floats are decorated in a variety of ways, but they generally portray a unifying theme which typically changes each year. Krewe members ride on the floats and interact with the crowd by throwing beads, doubloons (possibly stamped with the krewe's insignia), and other trinkets to onlookers. Some of the most prized and crowd pleasing throws include the Zulu coconut and the Moon Pie.


How to Get the Beads


Given the right place and time at Mardi Gras, you will certainly be sure to find some guy standing atop a balcony slowing waving around a sparkling set of beads waiting for the right girl who will display her, ahem, 'assets' in exchange for them. However, that's not typical everywhere; and it's definitely not the only way to load up on the treasured jewels.


Here are a few tips:


1) Just ask. Calling out Throw me something, Mister! is the standard way to request an item toss.


2) Make eye contact! Throwers are less inclined to launch items toward people who are not paying attention. Who wants to bean some poor sap in the head when he's not watching?


3) Do not approach the float. In order to maintain crowd safety, krewe members are often instructed to refrain from giving throws to people who approach the float.


4) Stand out in the crowd. Show your desire for trinkets by calling out, waving your hands, or jumping up and down.


5) Be interesting. Bead throwers like to be entertained too; so if you can impress them with an original costume, creative accessories, or a funny sign, you just may be rewarded with some extra goodies!


Have Fun


Mardi Gras is, for the most part, exactly what you make of it. So get out there, eat some delicious food, drink some great brews, meet some folks just as crazy as yourself, have a great time, and by all means Laissez les bons temps rouler! (pronounced lay-zay lay bon ton role-ay) which is translated, Let the good times roll!

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