January 6th is known as the Christian holiday, Epiphany but since the 1900's, in New Orleans it is also known as the official start of the Carnival season. Celebrations last until Mardi Gras Day or "Fat Tuesday" in French, which is the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of lent. Fat Tuesday refers the ritualistic eating of unhealthy foods and meat before the traditional days of fasting that accompany the season of Lent. The date of Mardi Gras actually changes every year, depending on what date Easter falls on. With the earliest being on February 3rd and latest on March 9th.
According to MardiGrasNewOrleans.com, 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. On March 2, 1699, the eve of Mardi Gras, a French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived in an area just south of New Orleans, which is now Plaquemines Parish and called it "Pointe du Mardi Gras" to honor the holiday. By the 1730's, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans, but not with the parades we know today. In the early 1740's, Louisiana's governor, Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls that celebrated with music, dancing, costumes and masks, which became the premise for the Mardi Gras balls held today. The first officially recorded Mardi Gras parade took place in 1837.
In 1872, Rex, the King of Carnival, proclaimed the official colors of Mardi Gras to be purple, green and gold. The purple symbolizes justice, green represents faith, and gold signifies power. Although the exact reasons for why those colors were chosen are unclear, in 1872, the Rex Organization was honoring Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia's visit to New Orleans during carnival season. The Rex Organization was created to help welcome the Grand Duke and, in the days, leading up to their celebratory parade, newspapers ran proclamations from King Rex of Carnival that balconies should be draped in purple, gold and green.
There are many traditions associated with Mardi Gras in New Orleans but none bigger than king cake. A king cake is a ring of twisted cinnamon flavored dough, topped with icing or colored sugar. It is believed that the king cake originated in France around the 12th century, with the three wise men bearing gifts twelve days after Christmas, calling it the Feast of the Epiphany or "Twelfth Night." The main part of the celebration was the baking of a King’s Cake to honor the three kings. Traditionally, there is small baby who symbolized Jesus, hidden inside of the cake. The baby symbolizes good luck and prosperity to whoever finds it. King Cake becomes "legal" to eat on Epiphany through Mardi Gras Day and it is considered bad luck to eat them after that day.
Today, there are almost 70 parades that roll throughout the New Orleans' area. With the three largest being Bacchus, Endymion and Orpheus. These "super krewes" are known for their elaborate floats and balls that are held directly after the parade. Mardi Gras in New Orleans is such an event that most non-essential businesses are closed that day because of all of the celebrations.
Each year, tens of thousands of visitors come to New Orleans to celebrate during the carnival season and now, through the advancement of modern-day technology, Mardi Gras Day parades are live streamed so no matter when you live, you can also celebrate the spirit of the day.
"Laissez le bon temps rouler!"
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