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Mardi Gras is Here!

Mardi Gras is Here!
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By Mary Cowser

Over the years, I have found there are numerous misconceptions about us here in Louisiana, such as the belief that we all live in the swamps with alligators. Some of us actually do, but most of us have houses on the ground with dogs and cats as pets. We actually do not mind being considered a little unconventional. Most of us are proud of our eccentricities.

Nevertheless, there is an event here that everyone is familiar with and that is Mardi Gras, frequently referred to as “The Greatest Free Show on Earth.” And the time is now upon us.

There are misconceptions about Mardi Gras as well. People believe that Mardi Gras traditions are drinking excessively, losing all inhibitions, and women flashing their breasts in order to get the best throws. That kind of behavior does happen in the French Quarter, especially among inebriated tourists, but it is not what Mardi Gras is about. Unfortunately, the media focuses on that sort of behavior and does not mention that Mardi Gras is also a wonderful family and religious time of year in Louisiana.

Mardi Gras History

Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, which happens the day before Ash Wednesday and is the last day of merriment and reveling before the period of religious discipline known as Lent.

On Ash Wednesday, many Christians go to church and receive ashes on their foreheads in the form of a cross. Therefore, if you see people walking around with a black X on their forehead, don’t think it is some strange custom particular to this part of the country. It is historically a time when people with significant sins were sprinkled with ashes as a way of doing public penance.

Since Easter Sunday is a movable date, Lent’s date changes as well and lasts for 40 days and 7 Sundays. Lent is a time of reflection on Jesus Christ’s suffering and resurrection and for deep worship and strict spiritual discipline. In these modern times, most Catholics and some other religions give-up something during the time of Lent that is difficult for them to live without such as smoking or fattening food.

However, until Lent arrives, we have the season of The Mardi Gras celebration which officially begins 12 days after Christmas, which is January 6th.

There are many traditions that go along with Mardi Gras. Below are a few of those traditions and how they came about:

The colors of purple, green, and gold

The colors came about when in 1872; the Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia was visiting during the Mardi Gras festivities. The Krewe of Rex gave him the honor of selecting the holiday colors; therefore, purple, green, and gold, the Duke’s family colors, became the official Mardi Gras colors. The color purple stands for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.

Krewes

We get to see and enjoy the magnificent Mardi Gras parades once a year; however, Krewes are the private organizations that work tirelessly year-round to make Mardi Gras happen. They are usually social organizations and members are frequently business people in the area.

To say the Krewes take this event seriously is a vast understatement. They are also quite secretive about their floats and customarily build them in an undisclosed location called a den. Many Krewes keep the identity of their King and Queen secret as well.

Parades

The Mardi Gras parades are thrilling for children. There are areas uptown and outside the Quarter that are great for families without the crazy behavior one finds in the French Quarter. One perfect example is along St. Charles Avenue. Many people bring small ladders with a seat attached to the top so the children have a good view. I suggest deciding on your spot beforehand and arriving early.

Around 50 to 60 parades happen during Mardi Gras. Each parade has a different theme and features flamboyant colors, intense music, and brilliant dancers dressed in elaborate costumes and masks.

The prime time for parades is the four-day weekend before Mardi Gras. Some of the older and larger Krewes have parades known as super parades. They feature stunning visual effects and typically have a celebrity representing them as the Grand Marshall or King. The parades attract hundreds of thousands of people every year.

King Cakes

King cakes are representative of the three wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. They are normally basic cinnamon dough cakes sprinkled with purple, green, and gold sugar. The more lavish cakes have a cream cheese or fruit filling. After Mardi Gras begins on January 6, you literally see them everywhere in Louisiana.

Inside the cake is a small plastic baby and whoever gets the baby will have the honor of furnishing the next King Cake or of throwing the next Mardi Gras party. Furthermore, some Krewes go as far as determining their King and Queen by who gets the baby.

Beads

The throwing of beads is perhaps the best-known Mardi Gras tradition and the objective is to catch as many as possible. The tradition of throwing beads did not begin until 1920 when the Rex Krewe started throwing glass necklaces.

You will hear the famous words, “Throw me something, Mister,” shouted repeatedly. There are numerous other items thrown such as toys, cups, and if you are lucky, you may catch one of the more limited and elaborate beads, a doubloon, which sometimes become collector’s items. You might even catch a coconut, which is rare.

Masks

The magnificent masks, one of my personal favorite traditions, are adorned with feathers, sequins, and anything that sparkles. In the early days, Mardi Gras was a time of mystery, mischief, and impulsiveness. The masks enabled the revelers to unleash their inhibitions while keeping their identities classified. Furthermore, it allowed people of different social classes to mingle.

Both the people on floats and people in the crowd wear masks; however, wearing a mask is more than a tradition for float riders. A law passed in the 1800s still requires them to wear a mask today.

A few words of caution

Unfortunately, some people have the impression they can come to New Orleans during Mardi Gras and do anything they want without retribution. Not true. The streets are full of police officers and many are undercover. They make hundreds of arrests every year.

Finding a restroom is a problem. There are portable toilets set up, but the lines are always extremely long. Some restaurants, hotels, schools, and churches let you use their facilities for a charge. This is potentially a miserable situation and is definitely worth investigating and making arrangements ahead of time. Make sure a restroom is the only place you go. A large number of those arrests I spoke of are for public urination.

Be cautious with your money. Mardi Gras is open season for very talented pickpockets that come from all around. Thousands of people who are shoulder-to-shoulder and bumping into one another is a dream situation for them.

My best advice is to plan ahead and have a fantastic time. Mardi Gras is something that everyone should experience at least once in his or her lifetime.

And as we always say here in Louisiana,

Laissez le bon temps rouler!

(Let the good times roll!)

 

 

 

 

 

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