Traditions of Mardi Gras

To many, Mardi Gras means colorful carnivals and decadent festivities, best associated with the colorful parades, gaudy costumes and party atmosphere of New Orleans. The traditions of Mardi Gras, however, date back as far as the Middle Ages.

Medieval Europe marked the start of the season of Lent, a time for fasting and abstinence, with one last feasting day. On the day before Ash Wednesday, it became customary to kill and cook a fatted fox, a practice that birthed the name Fat Tuesday. In medieval France, Fat Tuesday translated into "Mardi Gras." The origin of the word carnival also derives from this tradition, as the root word is Latin "carne," meaning "meat."

Eventually, pre-Lent festivities grew more decadent and raucous, with feasting, games, performances and heavy drinking. When European settlers arrived in the New World, bringing their old traditions with them, nowhere was Mardi Gras more popular than in New Orleans. Because of the city's ethnic diversity, with Spanish and French settlers heartily embracing the Fat Tuesday celebrations, Mardi Gras held in the city as early as 1704; by 1743, there were several annual balls, banquets and festivities held in the city. As the Creoles, descendants of the early French and Spanish settlers, grew more prominent, rowdy revelry during Mardi Gras became the norm in New Orleans.

The tradition of the Carnival King began in 1872 by local businessmen and leaders seeking a way to pull together all the smaller festivals into a more formal parade and party for both locals and visitors. By 1892, the Mardi Gras colors of green, gold and purple were well established.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Mardi Gras grew to be an important part of the city's tourism industry, drawing people from throughout the region to participate in the festivities. Although Mardi Gras celebrations were canceled during World War II and remained somewhat lackluster for the decade following, Carnival celebrations returned to their former pageantry and splendor in the 1960s, with the creation of more eye-popping floats and concentrated efforts by local businessmen and leaders to revitalize the fun-loving and rowdy traditions of the past.

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