What does ‘Mardi Gras’ mean?

Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday," also called Shrove Tuesday. It is the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Christian Lent season leading up to Easter. During Lent, many Christians fast, and the name Fat Tuesday refers to the last day of eating richer foods before the leaner days of Lent begin. This year it is celebrated on Feb. 13.

A participant in the Red Beans and Rice Mardi Gras Parade walks through New Orleans, Feb. 27 2017 in preparation for fat Tuesday.
Dan Anderson, European Pressphoto Agency

Where is it celebrated?

In America, celebrations for Mardi Gras are most famous in New Orleans, where it is the conclusion of weeks of parades that begin in January. Other Southern cities, especially with French heritage, such as Mobile, Ala., also mark Mardi Gras. The day is the culmination of the Carnival season, which begins on or after the Christian Feast of the Epiphany in January. Carnival season also is celebrated in many Catholic-majority countries, most well-known in Brazil, where elaborate parades fill the streets.

What is its history in the United States?

According to the official Mardi Gras New Orleans website, the first U.S. Mardi Gras occurred in Mobile in 1703 with a secret society, the Masque de Mobile, formed to organize the celebrations. This society is similar to the “krewes” in New Orleans who sponsor the elaborate floats used in the parades before and during Mardi Gras. The celebration arrived in New Orleans soon after its founding in 1718.

About a century later, according to Mardi Gras New Orleans, street parades had become established in the city and many krewes had formed, their members remaining anonymous and their faces hidden by masks. In 1872, a “King of Carnival,” Rex, was introduced to preside over the parades. The tradition of float riders throwing trinkets to the crowds also began in the 1870s. Typical “throws” include beads, cups, coins and stuffed animals.

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Who organizes and pays for Mardi Gras?

Krewes are private, non-profit organizations whose members get together year-round to plan their parade's theme, costumes and throws, according to Mardi Gras New Orleans. They are individually funded by members through dues, sales of krewe-related merchandise  and fundraising, including corporate sponsorships. The city of New Orleans is not involved in coordinating Mardi Gras parades; its only involvement is to issue parade permits.