In honor of today being Mardi Gras, here's everything you need to know about its history:
- Mardi Gras—the French term for 'Fat Tuesday'—lasts from January 6 until February 13. The annual Carnival always kicks off 12 days after Christmas (January 6th) and continues until Fat Tuesday (the evening before Ash Wednesday.) It's a period filled with celebrations, parades, balls, and parties, all of which culminate on Tuesday, February 13.
- The first North American Mardi Gras was celebrated in Alabama—not Louisiana. French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville arrived in what is now modern day Mobile, Alabama on Fat Tuesday, 1699. He named the location Point du Mardi Gras and threw a little party. In the years that followed, French travelers would come to the spot explicitly for Fat Tuesday celebrations. To this day, Mobile, Alabama claims to hold the oldest Mardi Gras celebrations in the country.
- Russian Royalty has attended the New Orleans festivities. Grand Duke Alexis Romanov Alexandrovich, brother of the heir apparent to the Russian throne, traveled to Louisiana in 1872 to partake in the celebrations!
- The traditional colors are purple, green, and gold. It is rumored that when Grand Duke Alexis visited in 1872, his welcoming committee handed out purple, green, and gold beads to the party-goers that year, as they were the colors of his home. The trio of shades came to symbolize the festivities and were later given meanings: purple for justice, gold for power, and green for faith.
- Mardi Gras became the celebration we know today because of a secret society. Since its first impromptu celebrations in the early 1700's, Mardi Gras had been regularly cancelled or banned for its destructive drunken parties—that is until 1837, when a secret society known as the Mistik Krewe of Comus aimed to elevate the chaotic experience, replacing the debauchery with lavish balls and parades. Eventually, the "Fat Tuesday" celebrations of New Orleans garnered much support and enthusiasm, later establishing itself as the Mardi Gras capital of the country.
- There are more than 70 secret societies (or "Krewes") involved in today's Mardi Gras festivities. Each Krewe builds a float to represent their specific theme on parade days, and features a celebrity guest to regal their audience. One of the more unusual groups is the Krewe of Chewbacchus—a society that combines the lovable Star Wars Character with the Greek God of wine.
- Each year, one ruler is anointed as "The King of Carnival." The king is selected by the Krewe of Rex, founded in 1872 to honor Grand Duke Alexis Romanov Alexandrovich's arrival to New Orleans. The society has chosen a person of distinction every year since, and today, the mayor presents the King of Rex with a symbolic key to the city.
- The King Cake, a traditional dessert, has biblical roots. The story of these glazed and frosted pastries dates back to the Medieval Times, when French, Belgian, and Spanish cultures commemorated the 12th day of Christmas with gifts and sweets. Biblically, the kings during this time would have been visiting the newborn baby Jesus, bringing gifts and sweets of their own. That's where the "king" in king cake comes from. Today, the cakes are fried and doughy, glazed and frosted, typically in the Mardi Gras colors. They're usually circular and braided, to resemble a King's crown.
- It is illegal to wear masks in New Orleans except on Mardi Gras. The masquerade is an enduring tradition of the Mardi Gras festivities as an opportunity for people to shed their inhibitions and fully imbibe in the party-spirit. A New Orleans city ordinance prohibits the wearing of masks on any other day, and on Mardi Gras masks must be removed by 6:00 p.m.
- Each Krewe hurls party favors into the crowds. Floats notoriously give out "throws," which are exactly what they sound like: objects thrown into the crowd. They range from coconuts (given by the Krewe of Zulu) to stuffed animals or gold doubloons (by the Krewe of Rex). Beads are the most ubiquitous throws, which are given by almost everyone. It's considered a great honor to receive a throw.