Everytime someone finds out I'm from New Orleans, Louisiana, the city home to Mardi Gras, they ask me if I've ever seen women flashing float riders for beads. I usually chuckle and say, "Every parade has its own environment. Some are more prone to that behavior, but others are more wholesome." And then I somehow start getting into the history of the carnival season, Mardi Gras Day, and everything that surrounds it, and their eyes start to glaze over. That's the most disappointing part of the interaction. So for those that believe they know what Mardi Gras is about, let's get into what the true meaning is- both from me and from friends and family that still call Louisiana "home".
Carnival is the season while Mardi Gras is a day.
I've heard it time and time again: "I'm going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras!" What they really mean is that they're going to New Orleans for the weekend before Mardi Gras to see parades. This isn't wrong, but technically, "Mardi Gras" is the last Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. This year, it falls on March 5th and is always completely determined by the date of Easter. (I'll get into this more in a minute.)
The carnival season starts on January 6th. No matter what. Period.
Carnival season starts 12 days after Christmas day, on the Epiphany, and is the official end of the holiday season. The Epiphany marks a visit to baby Jesus by the three Kings or the Wise Men. This is why the Epiphany, January 6th, is the Feast Day of the Wise Men. Historically, this day would be as big of a celebration as Christmas day. (A Feast day is a day set aside to remember important people and events throughout the history of the Catholic faith.)
Carnival season was about eating as much as you could.
Carnival season runs from January 6th to the day before Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras, because Ash Wednesday is the day that Lent begins. Lent was historically a time for fasting within the Catholic faith. Catholics used to fast for forty days and forty nights; from Ash Wednesday to Easter. This is why the day before lent is called "Mardi Gras." Mardi Gras literally means "Fat Tuesday," and the day before Mardi Gras is "Lundi Gras" or "Fat Monday." So Carnival season was a time to fill up as much as possible- and then some. Like more than Thanksgiving. This was weeks and weeks of eating and celebrating. Talk about having to unbutton your pants after a meal.
King Cakes are more than just "a cake with a baby."
The King Cake tradition is thought to have been brought to New Orleans from France in 1870. A King Cake is an oval-shaped cross between a coffee cake and a French pastry. It's decorated in royal colors of purple, green, and gold, which signify "justice," "faith," and "power." These colors were chosen to resemble a jeweled crown, honoring the Wise Men who visited Jesus on the Epiphany. In the past, things like coins, beans, pecans, or peas were also hidden in each King Cake. Today, a plastic baby is placed underneath the cake as an ode to the visitation of baby Jesus. The person that receives the piece with the baby is named "King" for the day and is supposed to provide the next King Cake.
When people hear "Mardi Gras" they normally think of New Orleans. But think again. Mardi Gras happens all across the state of Louisiana, and even the world. The city of Lafayette, just two hours west of New Orleans, has Cajun Mardi Gras, while the capital of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, has a Mardi Gras ball. There's even a family-friendly Mardi Gras in Alexandria and Lake Charles. Mardi Gras is also celebrated in many locations in Europe, and Brazil is found to have massive celebrations every year!
Mardi Gras is NOT about naked women.
I asked two of my Louisiana-born friends, "What is something you'd want tourists to know about Mardi Gras?" Here are their answers:
"I think Mardi Gras is a time of year where everyone gets along. Even though most people think Mardi Gras can be wild and crazy, and it can be, [but] when you're at a parade, everyone just seems to be all fun and games and neighboring groups of people interact with each other. I think if you're at Mardi Gras with a good group of people, it's sure to be an amazing time." -Jamilynne Johnson, a native resident of Slidell, LA
"I would say that parades are actually more family-oriented than people believe, especially the day[time] parades. Mardi Gras for some people is as big of a holiday as Christmas. It is a holiday centered around joy, laughter, and family. Some people go to the same parade, sit in the same spot, and talk to the same people every year. Mardi Gras is a way to bring the community together because the best part of the parade is not the floats, it's the half-a-day you spent waiting for the floats. It's a season where everyone can forget about their troubles, spend time with their families, and make memories that will last a lifetime. What I would say to people is that Mardi Gras is not about who caught the coolest beads or the most stuffed animals, it's about dancing with strangers, eating amazing food, and hearing the same story from your grandpa that you've heard a million times. The people who celebrate Mardi Gras know that it's not what you catch at the parades, it's who you're catching stuff with." -Payton Haddican, a native resident of New Orleans, LA