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The Fascinating History Behind These Mardi Gras Traditions

The Fascinating History Behind These Mardi Gras Traditions

Rex presides over a parade featuring festive floats that fling beaded necklaces, coins, and even coconuts into the crowd. Revelers take to the streets in elaborate masks and glittery costumes. And party-goers search for a naked plastic baby in their slice of king cake. It’s Mardi Gras season in New Orleans! But do know the fascinating history behind these Mardi Gras traditions?

I’ve partnered with Hotels.com to share the fascinating history of these Mardi Gras traditions that you’re sure to experience when you celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

When is Mardi Gras 2024?

The next Mardi Gras season starts on January 6, 2024, and ends on Fat Tuesday (also known as Shrove Tuesday), February 13, 2024.

As a kid living in Maastricht, in the southern (and predominantly Catholic) part of the Netherlands, I loved Carnival. (Or Carnaval, as the Dutch spell it.) Celebrated in the spring, Dutch Mardi Gras is like Halloween, only infinitely better.

Carnival festivities begin just after 11 o’clock Sunday Mass ends, six weeks before Easter. And for three days leading up to Ash Wednesday, daily life grinds to a halt as the entire town fills the streets with colorful costumes and festive parades. 

If Dutch Carnival sounds a bit like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, it should. Both are centuries-old pagan celebrations that evolved into church-sanctioned traditions. And while Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the closest thing I’ve experienced to Dutch Carnival in the United States, there are several differences. 

One of the biggest differences between Dutch mardi gras and the celebrations in New Orleans is the length. In New Orleans, Carnival starts before I have my Christmas decorations put away. That’s right! Just 12 days after Christmas, while kids are still on winter break and I’m enjoying the last crumbs of rum cake, Carnival celebrations kick off like clockwork on January 6th in Louisiana. 

And because Carnival runs through Fat Tuesday, a date that moves around the calendar based on the phases of the moon, Carnival in New Orleans can vary in length. It’s been just under a month long (like when Ash Wednesday was February 4th) and it’s been as long as nearly nine weeks (when Ash Wednesday was March 10th). Nine weeks?!? Heck, that’s nearly as long as most American retailers have Christmas decorations in their stores, which is really saying something!

Before you head to New Orleans to devour king cake and catch purple, gold, and green beads, here are the fascinating meanings behind the most recognizable Mardi Gras traditions.

Sage Advice:  From where to watch the parades to how to recycle your Mardi Gras beads, here’s everything you need to know about mardi gras history before you celebrate Mardi Gras in the Big Easy.

Do You Celebrate Mardi Gras?

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Where Did Mardi Gras Originate?

In Europe during the Middle Ages, Christians would binge-eat meat, cheese, eggs, and milk just before the Lenten season. Beginning on Ash Wednesday and lasting through Easter Sunday, Lent is a solemn and spiritually-reflective period that often includes ritual fasting. Today, modern Christians (especially those who are Catholic) celebrate Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday) as a last chance to enjoy meat, sugar, and alcohol before giving them up during Lent.
Do you know the history behind Mardi Gras traditions like parades?

Why are Parades Held During Carnival?

In the mid-1800s, Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans were so out of control that local officials threatened to outlaw the pre-Lenten celebrations. But the Mistick Krewe of Comus stepped in and saved Mardi Gras. This secret society was founded in late 1856 and members committed themselves to creating a more organized method of celebrating Carnival. The first Mardi Gras night parade took place a few months later, featuring a torch-lit procession of elaborate floats, marching bands, and revelers in masked costumes.

Why is the King of Mardi Gras Named Rex?

This tradition dates back to 1872 and is tied to a surprising international guest. When Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanov toured post-Civil War America, his itinerary placed him in New Orleans at the end of Carnival. And the Big Easy seized this unique opportunity.

Shortly before the duke arrived, New Orleans newspapers announced that a self-proclaimed “King of Carnival” named Rex (the Latin word for King) would be organizing that year’s festivities. When Fat Tuesday arrived, the parade route was packed with locals who enjoyed a procession of kings, harlequins, peasants, and even a costumed version of the Russian duke, the guest of honor.

Today, Rex symbolically rules Mardi Gras. Known as the King of Carnival, Rex is a member of the Rex Organization who is crowned king due to his prominent role in the community and active participation in philanthropic and civic-minded projects.

Sage Advice:  You may call him King of Carnival or the Monarch of Merriment, but never King Rex. Because rex is the Latin word for king, that’s like calling him King King. And repeating words during Mardi Gras in the Big Easy just cuts into your celebration time!

Do you know the history behind the Mardi Gras tradition of flambeaux?

Why are Flaming Torches Carried During Mardi Gras Parades?

Known as flambeaux, these flaming torches date back to the first Mardi Gras parade organized by the Mistick Krewe of Comus. Originally, the torches were necessary to light the way during the night parade. But with streetlights and other modern conveniences, they flambeaux are simply part of the festivities in 21st century Mardi Gras celebrations.

Mardi gras colors are purple, gold, and green

What do Mardi Gras Colors Mean?

Mardi Gras colors are purple, gold, and green. Once again, this tradition dates back to Russian Grand Duke Alexis’s 1872 visit to Mardi Gras. The three hues are said to be tied to these virtues:

  • Purple symbolizes justice,
  • Gold represents power, and
  • Green stands for faith

As legend has it, the duke came bearing gifts, and his welcoming committee handed out a strand of glass beads to folks demonstrating the color’s significance.

King Cake with plastic baby

Why is King Cake Eaten on Mardi Gras?

The Mardi Gras king cake tradition made its way to New Orleans via France. Like meat, eggs, and cheese, European Christians in the Middle Age feasted on this round cake before giving up sweets during Lent. Tasting like a cinnamon roll and looking like a braided Bundt cake, today king cake is typically decorated with purple, gold, and green accents. 

Hidden inside one bite of king cake is a small baby representing Jesus. It is a symbol of Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th, when the three kings (also known as the three wise men) visited the newborn King of Glory with gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh.

If you’re the lucky one who discovers the plastic baby in your bite of cake, it is generally expected that you’ll have good luck and increased prosperity in the year ahead. You may also be crowned king for the day, or at least the duration of your Mardi Gras celebration.

Woman in purple and green mardi gras mask

Why Are Mardi Gras Masks Worn?

It is generally believed that Mardi Gras evolved from pagan festivals celebrated throughout the Roman Empire. Feted at the end of December, Saturnalia was an upbeat, party-like celebration where social norms were set aside. 

In order to cross-dress with confidence and escape class constraints, Saturnalia involved donning elaborate masks and over-the-top costumes to hide each reveler’s true identity. Think of it as the original Masked Singer, only without singing.

Fun Fact:  Believe it or not, wearing masks, hoods, and facial disguises is typically outlawed in New Orleans. However, exceptions are made during Mardi Gras. And, if you are riding on a Mardi Gras float, by law, you must wear a mask.

Why Are Beads and Other “Throws” Tossed from Mardi Gras Floats?

It’s believed that the original Rex who ruled over Mardi Gras in 1872, when Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanov was in attendance, tossed beaded necklaces and “jewels” to his “loyal subjects” as he glided through New Orleans on his parade float. 

Doubloons are Mardi Gras Coins

By the early 1920s “throws” from floats evolved into the Mardi Gras tradition we know and love today. Parade goers will be treated to all sorts of goodies and trinkets, from plastic Mardi Gras necklaces to special Mardi Gras coins known as doubloons that are unique to each Mardi Gras krewe. Some parade attendees may even go home with stuffed animals or a coveted Mardi Gras coconut. The Krewe of Zulu began passing out coconuts in 1910 because they were a less expensive throw than the traditional Mardi Gras beads.

Sage Advice: Despite conventional wisdom, you do NOT need to bare your breasts to get beads. Simply shout, “Throw me something, mister!” and may the Mardi Gras force be with you!

Fun Fact:  Louisiana is the only state in the union that recognizes Mardi Gras as a legal holiday.

What’s Your Favorite Mardi Gras Tradition?

Have you celebrated Mardi Gras in New Orleans? What is your favorite Mardi Gras tradition? Do you want to know about a Mardi Gras tradition not mentioned here? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

A silver pot of cooked crayfish in Louisiana


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26 thoughts on “The Fascinating History Behind These Mardi Gras Traditions”

  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing, this is a great rundown of the history! I spend time in Cologne, Germany during Carnival and there are a lot of similarities. Thanks for sharing!

  2. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t even guess that the Mardi Gras has something to do with the Christianity and the custom to enjoy meat, cheese, eggs just before the Lenten season. This sheds some new light on the festival, thanks. 🙂

  3. pinkcaddytraveloguegmailcom

    My dad’s family is from Louisiana and sometimes I think they celebrate Mardi Gras all year lol! Between preparing costumes, floats, etc., it really is a year-round event down there. I didn’t know some of these facts though! Like how Rex became King Rex. Or what the Mardi Gras colors stood for! So interesting!

  4. thedctraveler9b7e4f7d4d

    I always love these posts by you. I feel like the meaning of things often get lost and now we just look at Mardi Gras as an excuse for a party – so thank you for reminding people about WHY celebrate it! Great article.

  5. The post was wonderfully packet with information. I loved all the historical connections tied to Mardi Gras. As a historian and a lover of history, I find that travel opens up a whole new connection to the past and helps to explain the present. Thank you for sharing!

  6. I always appreciate learning about the story behind cultural traditions. Thanks for sharing all of this great information about Mardi Gras. It’s nice to know the meaning behind the festivities and not just think of it as a big party season.

  7. I would love to do Carnaval in each country!! I’m originally from Brazil, but only did Carnaval when I was 5 so I don’t really remember it!! But I’ve done it in Holland and Barbados!! Definitely need to experience New Orleans!! This was so fun to read!

  8. The Solivagant Soul

    I had no idea Mardi Gras started so early! I always thought that since it is kind of the same, it was around the same time. And I also did not know that the different colors have different meanings. How did you learn so much about this=?

    1. I guess because I’m a nerdy history girl! 🙂 (Plus, I was interested in the differences in Carnaval as we celebrated it in the southern part of the Netherlands when I lived there and Mardi Gras as celebrated in New Orleans.)

  9. This is an actual holiday? Wow, that’s fantastic! I’m looking at visiting New Orleans for the first time, but I was planning on avoiding Mardi Gras week due to the crowds. You’re making me rethink that. It sure would be fun to be a part of the festivities!

  10. jordinjordinsjourneyscom

    I never thought about the significance of Mardi Gras colors (purple, green, gold). Very interesting! Wearing masks was another tradition I had no idea the significance. Now I know why so many if not all in parades are wearing masks.

  11. You know I am a sucker for all things New Orleans so I loved reading this post. We visited Mardi Gras World in New Oleans and got to see a lot of old footage from the original parades. It is really quite fascinating! You did an excellent job explaining the traditions of Mardi Gras!

  12. Carnival is such a big deal in the Caribbean. I always thought it was just a party and had no idea that there were “religious ” meanings behind it. I’ve always wanted to go to mardigraw. We dont really have anything like it here in canada.

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