As I look out at a bleak snowy day, I am thinking back to last year when we were still on the road seeking new adventures. As we all start getting our vaccinations and the rate of infection goes down, I know we are all thinking about what we’d like to do this spring. February is traditionally part of Mardi Gras, or carnival season, in the south. Last year, we got to participate in two of the Mardi Gras celebrations. One in Lake Charles, Louisiana , the other in Beaumont, Texas.
Just to help everybody out, Mardi Gras literally means Fat Tuesday in French. The celebrations can be wild, as in New Orleans, or very family oriented, as in Lake Charles and Beaumont. The festivals and parades have all been canceled this year due to Covid, but this is a sample of what they are all about.
Mardi Gras, Or Fat Tuesday, refers to events of the celebrations, beginning on or after the Christian feast of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday, which is known as Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday” reflecting the practice of the last night of eating rich, fatty foods before the ritual sacrifices for Lent and fasting during the Lenten Season (reference: Wikipedia).
Technically, the season is called “Carnival” and the last parade on Fat Tuesday is the “Mardi Gras”, but we in the US refer to all the celebrations as “Mardi Gras”. Other parades throughout the carnival season actually have other names, such as Rex, Orpheus and Zulu, and each represent something different.
The history of the season goes back to the passing of Christ. The tradition of Mardi Gras in the United States is rooted in French tradition. Colonists that occupied the southern part of the US (acquired through the Louisiana purchase), and French Creoles (Cajuns) that left Canada moved to the Louisiana, SE Texas, and Mississippi areas, brought their French traditions with them. Mardi Gras is their tradition and not celebrated throughout the US.
In Louisiana, everything closes on Fat Tuesday, in order to celebrate all day. Parades, parties, and balls are everywhere throughout the region. Many of the events are used as fundraisers for the many not-for-profit groups in the area. In Louisiana, to submit a “float “ in a parade, you have to be a registered non-profit organization. One additional note: in New Orleans and Lake Charles, corporate floats are not permitted. The non-profits are known as a Krewe, and you must apply for membership to belong to a Krewe. Some sample names are Knights of Sparta, Krewe of Freret, Krewe of Pygmalion and Krewe of Femme Fatale. You will find different Krewe’s in each town. Here’s a couple interesting examples from Lake Charles.
Krewes build their floats and make costumes that will be used in the parade. Many of the floats are built from old semi-trailers.
The costumes will have a theme and be in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold, and green. The colors of Mardi Gras date back to 1892. Purple represents justice, green represents faith, and gold represents power. Now when I was researching this topic, there are several versions of why these colors. But as one Mardi Gras historian said it is quite complicated, have another Bloody Mary, and it will make sense.
As floats make their way down a parade route, you can expect them full of Krewe members, loud music and a huge supply of trinkets to be thrown from the float to the revelers along the parade route. Beads are the most common heard of. But, did you know that you might also be lucky enough to get a stuffed animal, plastic cups, hats, even food (think Ramen noodles, which Mrs. Claus caught). Typical phrase is “throw me somethin’ mister – and they might!
Of course, the most popular Mardi Gras celebrations are in New Orleans, and I caution you that the Mardi Gras parades down Bourbon Street are adult parties. But many surrounding areas’ celebrations are very family friendly and the revelers are kind enough to make sure that children along the parade routes get as many beads and trinkets as any adult (maybe more). You’ll also find games, food and fun activities in these areas happening all day.
Another fun tradition that happens during the Mardi Gras season is the King Cake.
King cake is a rich pastry baked into the shape of a circle. Bakers use a brioche dough (or a Danish dough) and twist it into the traditional ring, then top it with a sweet glaze. While the original king cake was a simpler creation, today’s bakers stuff the cake with things like cinnamon or cinnamon sugar, brown sugar, pecans, cream cheese or fruit filling, then use a brightly colored sugar glaze. Especially in the U.S., king cakes tend to come in Mardi Gras colors – purple, green and gold. Tradition states that a baby or other trinket is hidden in the cake. Whoever finds the baby is supposed to receive good luck. BUT they’re also responsible for hosting the next Mardi Gras party (or at least bringing the next king cake). (Reference: Wide Open Eats.) Mrs. Claus and I have sampled many king cakes in our time, and we can assure you there is no bad one.
This year most parades are canceled. However, the party is not. Communities are decorating their homes as floats and encouraging drive-by. The beads and treats will still be thrown from the front porches. If you have a chance, experience a parade during the season. All events end at midnight on Fat Tuesday. Lent starts at 12:01 AM.
This only begins to tell the Mardi Gras story. You can research more about the social aid and pleasure clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, Kings and Queens of each parade plus much more.
Happy Adventure Hunting and Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler (let the good times roll)!
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