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Mardi Gras – Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Suzanne Harvey March 4, 2014

Mardi Gras celebrations New Orleans

Each year in the UK, as we enter the month of February, the familiar murmuring of ‘when is pancake day this year?’ can be heard as it dawns on us that the day when it is perfectly acceptable to eat pancakes for each of our 3 square meals is just around the corner. Shrove Tuesday is the final day of eating richer, fatty foods, before the ritual of fasting for lent.

Although the tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday has continued, the celebration of ‘Shrovetide’ – the week before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is now little celebrated in the UK.

But take a look around the world and you will come across some surprisingly familiar celebrations which you may not necessarily have linked to our own Shrove Tuesday...

Carnival – Rio de Janeiro – heard of it? Of course you have! It is famous all over the world as one of the biggest parties on Earth. Variations in carnival celebrations can be found throughout Brazil, but it is the party in Rio that is the largest – 2 million people can be found celebrating throughout the Carnival season, which begins on or after the Epiphany or Kings Day and culminates the day before Ash Wednesday.

Arguably the most famous name for the festival season, now synonymous with the celebrations in the USA, is Mardi Gras – French for ‘Fat Tuesday’. In many areas around the world, the term ‘Mardi Gras’ now refers to the entire period of festivities which run from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday.

So most of us have heard of Mardi Gras, but unlike other USA celebrations, such as Halloween, Mardi Gras has not really hit the UK – but are we really missing out? Should we make do with our humble pancake day, or is Mardi Gras worth a go?

I only really have one personal Mardi Gras experience to draw upon, as a 7 year old on a family ski trip in the States. It was so long ago my memory is hazy but I remember there being a lot of music, high spirits and beads! This experience says a lot about the popularity of Mardi Gras in the States – I was in a ski resort in the Rocky Mountains, 9600 feet above sea level, yet the infectious fun and excitement that goes hand-in-hand with Mardi Gras had even made it up to that altitude.

Where did it all begin? 

Mardi Gras arrived in North America as a Catholic French tradition with the Le Moyne brothers – Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in the late 17th century. King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France’s claim on the territory of Louisiane, which included what are now the US states of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. The party made camp at a place on the bank of the Mississippi River, around 60 miles downriver from where New Orleans is today; it so happened that the day was 3rd March 1699 – Mardi Gras. So in honour of this holiday they named the spot Point du Mardi Gras. Bienville went on to found the settlement of Mobile, Alabama in 1702, as the first capital of French Louisiana.

In 1703, French settlers in Mobile held the very first organised Mardi Gras celebration. Mobile, Alabama, still hosts one of the largest Mardi Gras celebrations in the USA, with some social events beginning as early as November.

But let’s face it, the Mardi Gras celebrations we’re most familiar with are those in the ‘Big Easy’ – New Orleans, Louisiana. The city was established in 1718 by Bienville and by the 1730s Mardi Gras was celebrated annually in the city. The first parade was held in 1857 by the Krewe of Comus – they began the tradition of presenting a parade with floats. ‘Throws’ were introduced in the 1870s, with beads, trinkets, cups, doubloons and cuddly toys still being thrown from the floats today.

So there’s the history, but what is Mardi Gras all about? 

Mardi Gras today is about music, parades, floats, throws, masks, fancy dress and general merriment. It’s a good excuse for a big knees-up!

In New Orleans the party starts on January 6th, with festivities running right the way through until the start of Lent. 

The most popular time to visit the city for Mardi Gras is the extended weekend before Mardi Gras – this is when the most popular parades are – Bacchus, Endymion, Zulu and Rex.

The New Orleans Mardi Gras is affectionately known by New Orleanians as the ‘Greatest Free Show on Earth’. As well as all of the parades being free, ‘throws’ from the floats mean the crowds lining the streets go home with bags full of trinkets.

The festivities extend right across the city of New Orleans including the suburban parades which are great for all ages. For night owls, the fun continues late into the night in the French Quarter of the city.

Top Tips

1. If you want to visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras book early. Hotels start to get busy as early as August and are often fully booked by December. 

2. If you want to avoid some of the biggest crowds plan your trip for earlier in the festivities – remember the Carnival in New Orleans begins on the 6th January so why not visit before Mardi Gras to get a taste of the fun.

3. Embrace the fancy dress! Everyone gets dressed up in New Orleans for Mardi Gras – anything goes, but the Mardi Gras colours of purple, green and gold will be everywhere.

4. Take a bag to collect the ‘throws’ in. And if you are lucky enough to catch a doubloon from the Kings float in the Bacchus parade keep hold of it – they are very sought after!

5. To guarantee a great spot for the parade book grand stand tickets in advance for the viewing stands on St. Charles Avenue.

6. Make sure you try a King’s Cake – a traditional ring or oval cake which has a tiny plastic or porcelain baby in it.

Where else to visit for Mardi Gras

Whilst New Orleans is the biggest, there are plenty of other places in which to experience Mardi Gras in the USA. Other notable Mardi Gras celebrations are held in St. Louis, Missouri, and Galveston, Texas. But wherever you are in the USA during the Carnival season you are bound to come across some kind of celebration.

Increasingly popular is the Mardi Gras Grand Celebration held at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida where you can enjoy some of the biggest names in music, a spectacular parade, authentic Cajun cuisine and more. The festivities this year are running from February 8th until May 31st. Perfect for families, the Mardi Gras Grand Celebration is included with your Universal Studios admission ticket.

So I think it’s about time we jumped on the Mardi Gras bandwagon and booked ourselves a trip to the States to celebrate. Mardi Gras 2015 is Tuesday, February 17th – Laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll)!