The Complete History of New Orleans Mardi Gras Season and Traditions


The Mardi Gras that many celebrate today differs significantly from its origins. What started as a pagan celebration evolved into a Christian holiday that made its way from Europe to New Orleans in the 18th century. Mardi Gras wasn’t always a debaucherous street party with extravagant floats, throws, and balls. The storied past of Mardi Gras is responsible for all the good times parade-goers enjoy today.

The Early Origins of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras originated in the pagan rituals of the Roman winter festival Saturnalia, the celebration of the agricultural god Saturn. King cakes were also a tradition during this holiday. Whoever ate the slice of cake with a hidden bean inside would be declared king for the day of celebration.

The festivity evolved as it passed through medieval Europe to France. Mardi Gras swiftly became associated with the Catholic Epiphany or Three Kings Day. January 6, the Twelfth Night, marks the beginning of the season, and Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras marks the end. After weeks of celebration, Christian Lent begins.

The First Mardi Gras in America

Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville carried Mardi Gras to the Gulf South in 1699. On March 2 of that same year, also the eve of Mardi Gras, he arrived 60 miles south of New Orleans. At the time, the area, now known as Mobile, Alabama, was named Pointe du Mardi Gras in honor of the holiday. Bienville officially established Fort Louis de la Mobile in 1702 and celebrated the first Mardi Gras in America the following year.

The History and Traditions of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

When Bienville established New Orleans in 1718, he brought Mardi Gras with him. By the mid-1700s, New Orleans was officially celebrating Fat Tuesday. In 1875, Governor Henry Warmoth made Mardi Gras a legal holiday in Louisiana. The balls, krewes, parades, throws, and king cakes followed closely after.

Mardi Gras Balls

Royal balls existed well before Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The Governor of French Louisiana, Marquis de Vaudreuil, threw elegant balls for his societies and institutions. Attendees would wear elaborate costumes and masks and indulge in food and beverages. Mardi Gras krewes organized balls to reflect the decadent French balls of the time. Over the years, they grew to include live music performances and parade floats.

Mardi Gras Krewes

It wasn’t until 1856 that the first Mardi Gras krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, formed. The Twelfth Night Revelers and Rex, New Orleans’ oldest functioning krewe, developed in the 1870s. Mardi Gras’ original krewes inspired the established social organizations that plan today’s parades and balls. As krewes became integral to Mardi Gras, so did floats, throws, and king cakes.

Mardi Gras Parades and Floats

The first parade in New Orleans, hosted by Mistick Krewe of Comus, featured two horse-drawn floats. Mardi Gras royalty Rex rolled without any floats for the first five years of its existence. The arrival of modern transportation in the 1930s made floats more accessible. It was now easier for artists to build floats and for krewes to pull them. Local artists like Roy and Blaine Kern started to create extravagant floats, changing Mardi Gras forever. Kern Studios’ Mardi Gras World accounts for 80 percent of the floats that roll today.

Mardi Gras Beads and Throws

Today’s decorative beads, doubloons, and signature throws were once glass beads and small trinkets. The tradition started with the Twelfth Night Revelers’ first parade. As the procession rolled, someone dressed up as Santa Claus tossed items into the crowd. The Krewe of Rex took throws to the next level by cultivating their signature throws, a mix of glass beads and medallions.

Mardi Gras King Cakes

Many believe the Twelfth Night Revelers are responsible for the first appearance of King Cake in New Orleans. Before Mardi Gras Day, the krewe served king cake to determine who would be the kings and queens of the parade. Today’s king cakes are nothing like the ones from their pagan origins. Green, purple, and gold sprinkles coat the top, and a plastic baby hides inside. The person who finds the baby must purchase the next king cake instead of being crowned king for a day.

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