The more you know about Mardi Gras tradition, the more fun you’ll have. Here’s a primer based on facts from Mardi Gras guru Arthur Hardy.
Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is always 47 days before Easter. Carnival season begins on Jan. 6, Twelfth Night, the Christian holy day of the Epiphany, and ends with Mardi Gras. It's a celebration of life that precedes the fasting and simple living during the Christian season of Lent. Because Easter is variable, Mardi Gras can be any Tuesday between Feb. 3 and March 9 and so the length of Carnival fluctuates accordingly.
During the 12-day period leading up to Mardi Gras, nearly 70 parades roll in the area. An 18-float procession of a 450-member krewe can feature more than 75 units. When you add band members, dance groups, clowns and motorcycle squadrons, the number of participants often totals more than 3,000.
Masks were first worn during Mardi Gras so wearers could escape society and class constraints. When wearing a mask, carnival goers were free to mingle with whatever class they desired and keep their reputation untarnished.
Today, wearing masks during Mardi Gras is tradition. Float riders are required to wear masks by law in keeping with the mystery and tradition, and many krewes never reveal who their king or queen is.
In 1872, Rex, the king of Carnival, proclaimed the official colors of Mardi Gras to be purple, green and gold. While Arthur Hardy believes they were probably chosen simply because they looked good together, Rex assigned a meaning to the colors in his 1892 parade titled Symbolism of Colors: Purple represents justice, green stands for faith, and gold signifies power.
Carnival clubs are chartered as non-profit entities. They are financed by dues, by the sale of merchandise to the members and by fund-raising projects. Most krewes are also actively involved in charitable work. Some are all female, others all male and families belong for many generations. The krewe throws the parade but not every member participates in the parade.
Nearly 2,000 Mardi Gras parades have rolled since 1857. Their themes have been taken from history, children's stories, legends, geography, famous people, entertainment, mythology and literature. Some of the most popular parades are known for their satire and political comedy. All the floats are decorated to fit the theme and every year the krewe picks a new theme.
According to Arthur Hardy, items have been tossed off floats since at least 1871, when a masker costumed as Santa Claus aboard float No. 24 in the Twelfth Night Revelers parade dispensed gifts to the crowd. Along with beads, toys, cups and doubloons (colorful aluminum coins stamped with the parade organization and theme), many krewes have signature throws -- Zulu has its coconut, for instance, and Muses throws shoes. Plus, some krewes have upped the game with fiber optics and blinking LEDs while others are going more traditional with glass beads.
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