The Mystique of Mardi Gras: Inside the History of Fat Tuesday

Believe it or not, Fat Tuesday wasn’t always a day of parades and beads

Beads tossed from parade floats elaborate masked balls, and the brilliant colors of purple, green, and gold. We’re speaking, of course, of Mardi Gras (February 13, 2024), the raucous celebration that falls on the Tuesday before the Christian fasting period of Lent in February and March. Also known internationally as Carnival or Carnaval, the lively annual festival is the hallmark of New Orleans, Louisiana, but its rich history begins well before the establishment of the Big Easy in 1718.

Mardi Gras parade © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Medieval roots, French legacy

The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced to medieval Europe passing through Rome and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries to the French House of the Bourbons. From here, the traditional revelry of Boeuf Gras or fatted calf followed France to her colonies. By that time, the celebration was linked to the Catholic Church and its attempts to discourage indulgences during Lent. 

The English translation of the French Mardi Gras is Fat Tuesday and it was originally a single-day celebration in which revelers would eat, drink, and carouse as much as possible before midnight when Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent. It was a day that many recklessly released their inhibitions before the 40 days of fasting that led up to Easter.

Mardi Gras costume exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans and named it Pointe du Mardi Gras when his men realized it was the eve of the festive holiday. Bienville also established Fort Louis de la Louisiane (which is now Mobile) in 1702. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated America’s very first Mardi Gras.

In 1704, Mobile established a secret society (Masque de la Mobile), similar to those that form the current Mardi Gras krewes. It lasted until 1709. In 1710, the Boeuf Gras Society was formed and paraded from 1711 through 1861. The procession was held with a huge bull’s head pushed along on wheels by 16 men. Later, Rex would parade with an actual bull, draped in white and signaling the coming Lenten meat fast. This occurred on Fat Tuesday.

New Orleans was established in 1718 by Bienville. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans but not with the parades we know today. In the early 1740s, Louisiana’s governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls which became the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Secret societies, parades, and beads

The earliest reference to Mardi Gras Carnival appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body. That year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans.

By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches or flambeaux lit the way for the Krewe’s members and lent each event an exciting air of romance and festivity.

In 1856, six young Mobile natives formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus invoking John Milton’s hero Comus to represent their organization. Comus brought magic and mystery to New Orleans with dazzling floats (known as tableaux cars) and masked balls. Krewe members remained anonymous.

In 1870, Mardi Gras’ second Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, was formed and it introduced throws in 1870 which kicked off the tradition of tossing keepsakes from floats into the crowd. While some Krewes, like the krewe of Zulu, choose to throw coveted odd items like coconuts, most Krewes stick to purple, green, and gold beads, the official colors of Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras costume exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newspapers began to announce Mardi Gras events in advance and they even printed Carnival Edition lithographs of parades’ fantastic float designs (after they rolled, of course—themes and floats were always carefully guarded before the procession). At first, these reproductions were small and details could not be seen. But beginning in 1886 with Proteus’ parade Visions of Other Worlds these chromolithographs could be produced in full, saturated color doing justice to the float and costume designs of Carlotta Bonnecase, Charles Briton, and B.A. Wikstrom. Each of these designers’ work was brought to life by talented Parisian paper-mache artist Georges Soulie who for 40 years was responsible for creating all of Carnival’s floats and processional outfits.

1872 was the year that a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival, Rex, to preside over the first daytime parade. To honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, the businessmen introduced Romanoff’s family colors of purple, green, and gold as Carnival’s official colors. Purple stands for justice, gold for power, and green for faith. This was also the Mardi Gras season that Carnival’s improbable anthem, If Ever I Cease to Love, was cemented, due in part to the Duke’s fondness for the tune.

The following year, floats began to be constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France culminating with Comus’ magnificent The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species in which exotic paper-mache animal costumes served as the basis for Comus to mock both Darwin’s theory and local officials including Governor Henry Warmoth. In 1875, Governor Warmoth signed the Mardi Gras Act making Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana which it still is.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Modern Mardi Gras

Like Comus and the Twelfth Night Revelers, most Mardi Gras krewes today developed from private social clubs with restrictive membership policies. Since all of these parade organizations are completely funded by their members, New Orleanians call it the Greatest Free Show on Earth!

Except for the crowds, today’s Mardi Gras isn’t that different from its colonial origins. Secret societies still rule the parades, revelers still try to catch the throws, and indulgence remains the common thread for the entire week of festivities. There’s no experience quite like a New Orleans Mardi Gras experience so as people say in Cajun French at Mardi Gras New Orleans, laissez les bons temps rouler—let the good times roll!

>> DIG DEEPER

Future Mardi Gras Dates

  • March 4, 2025
  • February 17, 2026
  • February 9, 2027
  • February 29, 2028
  • February 13, 2029
  • March 5, 2030

Worth Pondering…

It’s a great party, and anyone who doesn’t enjoy Mardi Gras is not of this world.

—Franklin Alvarado

The History of Mardi Gras Traditions

What was Mardi Gras like in 1898?

Fat Tuesday, last day before Lent’s forty day fast;
Mardi Gras magic exudes from every pore,
Elaborately costumed krewes toss beads off floats,
Give rise to fanciful celebrations of the dead,
Historic carnival steeped in Catholic doctrine.

—Sterling Warner

Mardi Gras is a Christian holiday and popular cultural phenomenon that dates back thousands of years to pagan spring and fertility rites. Also known as Carnival or Carnaval, it’s celebrated in many countries around the world, mainly ones with large Roman Catholic populations. Mardi Gras is traditionally celebrated on Fat Tuesday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent. This year Mardi Gras is February 21 which means the season will last a little more than six weeks.

Mardi Gras parade © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mardi Gras is one of the many worldwide celebrations that recognize Fat Tuesday—the last day before Lent which historically was characterized by giving up meat, sweets, and other delicacies. Originating in medieval Europe, by the 17th and 18th centuries the festivities had become an annual event for the French House of the Bourbons.

On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans and named it Pointe du Mardi Gras when his men realized it was the eve of the festive holiday. Bienville also established Fort Louis de la Louisiane (which is now Mobile) in 1702. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated America’s very first Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras display © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1704, Mobile established Masque de la Mobile, a secret society similar to those that form the current Mardi Gras krewes. It lasted until 1709. In 1710, the Boeuf Gras Society was formed and paraded from 1711 through 1861. The procession was held with a huge bull’s head pushed along on wheels by 16 men. Later, Rex, The King of Carnival, would parade with an actual bull draped in white and signaling the coming Lenten meat fast. This occurred on Fat Tuesday.

New Orleans was established in 1718 by Bienville. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated in New Orleans but not with the parades we know today. In the early 1740s, Louisiana’s governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls which became the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today.

King cakes at Ambrosia Bakery, Baton Rouge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The earliest reference to Mardi Gras Carnival appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body. That year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans.

By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches or flambeaux lit the way for the krewe’s members and lent each event an exciting air of romance and festivity.

Mardi Gras parade © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1856, six young Mobile natives formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus invoking John Milton’s hero Comus to represent their organization. Comus brought magic and mystery to New Orleans with dazzling floats (known as tableaux cars) and masked balls. Krewe members remained anonymous.

In 1870, Mardi Gras’ second Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, was formed. This is also the first recorded account of Mardi Gras throws.

Mardi Gras costume display © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newspapers began to announce Mardi Gras events in advance and they even printed Carnival Edition lithographs of parades’ fantastic float designs (after they rolled, of course, themes and floats were always carefully guarded before the procession). At first, these reproductions were small and details could not be clearly seen. But beginning in 1886 with Proteus’ parade Visions of Other Worlds these chromolithographs could be produced in full, saturated color, doing justice to the float and costume designs of Carlotta Bonnecase, Charles Briton, and B.A. Wikstrom. Each of these designers’ work was brought to life by talented Parisian paper-mache artist Georges Soulie who for 40 years was responsible for creating all of Carnival’s floats and processional outfits.

Mardi Gras arts and crafts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1872 was the year that a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival, Rex to preside over the first daytime parade. To honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, the businessmen introduced Romanoff’s family colors of purple, green, and gold as Carnival’s official colors. Purple stands for justice, gold for power, and green for faith. This was also the Mardi Gras season that Carnival’s improbable anthem, If Ever I Cease to Love, was cemented, due in part to the Duke’s fondness for the tune.

The following year, floats began to be constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France culminating with Comus’ magnificent The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species in which exotic paper-mache animal costumes served as the basis for Comus to mock both Darwin’s theory and local officials including Governor Henry Warmoth. In 1875, Governor Warmoth signed the Mardi Gras Act making Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana which it still is.

Madre Gras display © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like Comus and the Twelfth Night Revelers, most Mardi Gras krewes today developed from private social clubs with restrictive membership policies.

What was Mardi Gras like in 1898? Arthur Hardy who publishes an annual guide to the New Orleans celebration searched for decades to find out, looking for a film of the parade that year that was only rumored to exist. He finally found it nearly 5,000 miles away at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. The footage which was recently shown at the Louisiana State Museum is the oldest-ever film of New Orleans. “This probably, in Louisiana film history, is the most important find,” said Louisiana film historian Ed Poole.

Mardi Gras arts and crafts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Footage from the 1899 Mardi Gras shows that while Mardi Gras parades from over a century ago are in many ways similar to today’s, the festival has certainly evolved. For instance, while modern revelers often dress casually (and sometimes wear very little clothing at all), parade-goers in 1898 donned formal attire and carried parasols. People riding on floats were not throwing beads or coins into the crowd and no police or barricades were present for crowd control.

Mardi Gras parade © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the flipside, one tradition from 1898 has since disappeared: The traditional revelry of boeuf gras or fatted ox was once a live bull. The film shows an actual bovine perched atop one of the floats. This tradition ended in the early 20th century when officials decided it was “no longer tasteful.” Today’s parades opt instead for a papier-maché version.

It’s certainly grown and changed a bit but at its core, Mardi Gras is the same.

Mardi Gras costume display © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Future Mardi Gras Dates

February 13, 2024

March 4, 2025

February 17, 2026

February 9, 2027

February 29, 2028

February 13, 2029

March 5, 2030

Worth Pondering…

It’s a great party, and anyone who doesn’t enjoy Mardi Gras is not of this world.

—Franklin Alvarado

How Louisiana At Large Does Mardi Gras

There are unique celebrations in every corner of the state

Common take me to the Mardi Gras
Where the people sing and play
Where the dancing is elite
And there’s music in the street
Both night and day.

—Paul Simon

Even if you consider yourself a New Orleans Mardi Gras expert, you haven’t seen anything yet! The celebrations outside of NOLA are as diverse as the state itself. Louisiana celebrates all of its roots: Native American, French, Spanish, African-American, Cajun, and Creole. Each city in each region of Louisiana has its own way of celebrating Mardi Gras.

Everyone loves Carnival Season—the weeks of parades, feasts, family fun, and revelry. It runs from Twelfth Night through Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

January 6th also known as Twelfth Night or the Epiphany is the day that the three kings (or wise men) visited Jesus in Bethlehem after following a bright star and presented their gifts to the baby Jesus of gold (to symbolize his royal birth), frankincense (to represent his divine birth), and myrrh (to recognize his mortality). The word Epiphany is from the Greek word to show. This is the day Mardi Gras season begins—hence king cake season.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mardi Gras and king cakes go hand in hand. Carnival’s beginning, Twelfth Night, is a fixed date, but its ending at midnight on Mardi Gras is movable. This year Mardi Gras is February 21 which means the season will last a little more than six weeks—a month and a half of being exposed to king cakes. The cakes tend to show up most everywhere during the season. Once they were baked so dry and undistinguished that they were easy to ignore; now they are injected with various flavors of globby stuff that make a bust out of New Year’s diet resolutions but that are nevertheless tempting.

Want to join in? Explore the different regions, find a spot that speaks to you, and reserve a camping site. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Louisiana

At the top of the boot, north Louisiana offers its own unique and distinct take on Mardi Gras. From fishing and game hunting to cards and dice to antiques, wine and culture, you can truly choose your own adventure here. And that’s especially true during Carnival Season.

>> Read Next: 10 Things You Might Not Know About Mardi Gras

Those in east Texas or Arkansas can take a short drive to Shreveport for the festivities. One of their stand-out parades is the Krewe of Barkus and Meoux parade which features a royal court of pets. Past parade participants have included turtles, donkeys, cats, dogs, goats, chickens, and more. Bring the whole family over to Monroe for a kid’s parade, pet’s parade, a Mardi Gras 5K (complete with King Cake), and a traditional Mardi Gras parade with marching bands and colorful floats.

King cakes at Ambrosia Bakery in Baton Rouge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Central Louisiana

In central Louisiana all the wide variety of cultures in Louisiana come together. There’s incredible music to enjoy, Civil War history to witness, and visitors can even walk the same path taken by Solomon Northup during his 12 years as a slave.

The Alexandria Mardi Gras has been formally functioning since 1994. Locals celebrate with a variety of parades including the Pineville Light the Night Parade. The illuminated floats coming over the bridge linking the two cities are stunning.

The Town of Woodworth Parade welcomes any and all entries from go-karts and wagons to horses, tractors, or trikes. The Hixson Classic Cars and College Cheerleaders may be the area’s best-known event.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southwest Louisiana

As the home of Zydeco music, fantastic food, and fais-do-do dance parties locals of Lafayette, Houma, New Iberia, and beyond take having a good time pretty seriously. When it comes to Carnival season, the area is most famous for the Courir De Mardi Gras. Though medieval France is where it all began, capitaines of Mardi Gras can still be found leading a courir (French for run) to this day. Each community puts its own spin on the run but across central-southern Louisiana you’ll find hordes of participants all dressed up and running on foot, riding horses or trucks, going house to house, begging for ingredients to make a communal gumbo.

Mardi Gras costume display © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first recorded celebration of Lafayette Mardi Gras was on February 14, 1869 but the first citywide Mardi Gras observance wasn’t until 1897. All parades end at Cajun Field where the annual Festival de Mardi Gras (February 17-21, 2023) takes place with carnival rides, live music, and more. If you’re a master costume crafter, you may want to partake in the Grand Marais Mardi Gras Association’s annual ugly costume contest.

>> Read Next: Joe Cain, Moon Pies & Mobile Mardi Gras

King cake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If king cake is your favorite part of the season, you’ll find the sweet treat across the state with plenty of delectable options in Houma. No matter where you get your cake, everyone digging in will keep an eye out for the small plastic baby baked in. If you find it in your piece, you’re responsible for buying the next cake—and quick! Along with your sweet treat, you’ll want to hang around for the extensive schedule of colorful parades rolling through the bayou region, both in Houma and nearby Thibodaux.

On the far west end of the state, you’ll find Lake Charles enjoying the carnival season. This family-friendly Mardi Gras celebration includes over 60 krewes participating in their Krewe of Krewes Parade on Fat Tuesday. In addition, be sure to check out how local restaurants and bakeries embrace the season.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southeast Louisiana

You will find that this area of the state is rich in history. These days, the diversity of the region can be seen coming together over jambalaya, classic cocktails, and outdoor adventures. 

King cake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the capital city, Spanish Town Parade is a vibrant staple of the Carnival season. Started in 1981 in Baton Rouge, Spanish Town residents partake in a long-time tradition of kidnapping one of the fake lake flamingo decorations and relocating it to their own yard. For locals, the flamingos are a vibrant kick-off to this festive season.

Northshore Mardi Gras celebrations are quirky, creative, and high-energy. Marching bands and ornate floats take to the streets. Fancifully decorated boats ride the waves and costumed pups walk their people.

Mardi Gras costume display © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Founded in 1965, the 300-member Krewe of Olympia is the oldest in St. Tammany Parish. Keeping the identity of King Zeus a secret, members ride on floats, trucks, and horses interspersed with marching bands from across the Northshore. And yes—there is plenty of Abita Beer to be found. The next Krewe of Olympia parade rolls February 11, 2023 in Covington at 6 pm.

>> Read Next: How to Celebrate Mardi Gras in 2021?

A walking parade featuring man’s best friends and their families puts some bark into the Carnival scene. Founded in 1999, the Mystic Krewe of Mardi Paws features dogs sashaying in costume along the Mandeville lakefront.

No matter what your favorite part of Carnival is or your past experience, there’s something for everyone across greater Louisiana. Enjoy it like a local with great food and entertainment. Come experience the most authentic and diverse Mardi Gras you never knew existed.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Future Mardi Gras Dates

February 13, 2024

March 4, 2025

February 17, 2026

February 9, 2027

February 29, 2028

February 13, 2029

March 5, 2030

Worth Pondering…

Fat Tuesday, last day before Lent’s forty day fast;
Mardi Gras magic exudes from every pore,
Elaborately costumed krewes toss beads off floats,
Give rise to fanciful celebrations of the dead,
Historic carnival steeped in Catholic doctrine.

—Sterling Warner