We're unmasking the customs that give Fat Tuesday its larger-than-life lore.

By Mary Claire Lagroue
December 27, 2020
Advertisement

Even if you haven't participated in Mardi Gras, you're probably familiar with some of its traditions, like jewel-toned beads, parades of krewes in costume, elaborate balls, and plastic babies hidden in king cakes. I grew up around these traditions (my New Orleans-born grandfather co-founded a Mardi Gras krewe!) and yet, I can imagine that these customs would seem a little strange to anyone looking in. Here, we're demystifying Mardi Gras traditions with a look at their history and meaning.

Mardi Gras History

Historians trace Mardi Gras (also known as Carnival) to medieval Europe, though spring debaucheries were part of pre-Christian Europe, too. Carnival, however, began as a Christian festival. Preparing to fast during Lent — the 40-day season of penance that leads up to Easter — people indulged in one last hoorah of feasting and drinking.

The French brought the festivities to North America, holding the first Mardi Gras ball and parade in the early 1700s in Louisiana's then-capital, Mobile, Alabama. Festivities soon sprung up in New Orleans, Louisiana, too. Over time, France's strong influence on Louisiana's culture cemented the state as the center of Mardi Gras in the United States. In fact, many of the holiday's traditions have carried over from France.

Mardi Gras King Cake Tradition

King cakes consist of bread-like dough, sweet filling, and frosting. The dough tends to resemble French bread or brioche, Purple, green, and gold sugar top them off. The cake's three colors represent justice (purple), faith (green), and power (gold).

King cake season kicks off on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. This Christian feast commemorates the Magi (also known as the three kings) meeting the Christ Child. Hence the name king cake. It also marks the end of Christmas. Bakeries sell king cakes until Ash Wednesday, when Mardi Gras festivities end and Lent begins.

Galettes des Rois Tradition

The French brought king cake to New Orleans sometime around 1870. It looks different from the Mardi Gras dessert as we know it. Galette des rois (translation: king cake) is made from layers of puff pastry and a sweet filling of ground almonds (known as frangipane).

The King Cake Baby Meaning

This tradition dates back to France. Bakers would place a small trinket called a fève (which means fava bean) inside the galette des rois. It could be a dried bean, pea, pecan, coin, or something else. In New Orleans, a bakery called McKenzie's Pastry Shoppes began using small porcelain babies as fèves. Before long, plastic babies replaced them.

Bakers no longer bake these trinkets into the dessert but include one on the side for someone to hide in the king cake. According to custom, whoever finds the baby in their slice of king cake has to purchase the next one.

Some say the baby represents the Christ Child, and that meaning certainly fits the story behind king cake. The owner of McKenzie's Pastry Shoppes, however, considered the symbolism more of a coincidence — the bakery chose them because of a persuasive salesperson.

Mardi Gras beads draped over wrought iron
Credit: Erik Pronske Photography / Getty Images

Mardi Gras Beads Tradition

The tradition behind throwing beads at Mardi Gras seems to dates back to the late 1800s, but it really didn't take off until the 1920s when New Orleans krewes popularized throwing them from parade floats. Long before plastic beads became the norm, these beads were made of glass.

Parade riders later began throwing doubloons, aluminum mementos that look like coins marked with their emblem or other images. Today, you can catch candy, plastic cups, rubber ducks, small stuffed animals, and more.

Mardi Gras Traditions in Louisiana

New Orleans Mardi Gras Traditions

Mardi Gras krewes are at the heart of Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans. These local organizations plan and put on the city's balls and parades. Krewe members (or their children) dress in costume for these events. And though you'll now find krewes in other cities, the Crescent City's first krewe and its traditions date back to 1857.

Cajun Mardi Gras Traditions

In southwestern Louisiana, small, rural towns like Church Point and Mamou celebrate Mardi Gras with a unique tradition of their own: the courir. The courir, which means "run" in French, involves going from house to house to gather the ingredients for gumbo, belting out traditional songs in Cajun French. Participants dress in colorful, fringed costumes and travel on horse or decorate car trailers. The courir culminates with chasing a chicken, the final gumbo ingredient.

Mardi Gras Traditions Around the World

Communities around the world celebrate Mardi Gras or Carnival. Not far from New Orleans, Mobile, Alabama, still maintains its time-honored Mardi Gras traditions, like parades and balls. Quebec, Canada, also draws on its French roots with Mardi Gras, though celebrations didn't begin until the late 1800s.

Nice, France, boasts the country's largest Carnival celebration, which ranks among the most popular in the world. For Venice, Italy, Carnival has long been an elaborate festival, known for its incredible masks.

But the world's largest Carnival unfolds in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, it includes parades with extravagant floats as well as balls. But instead of krewes, Brazil boasts samba schools — groups who hail from the same area, who march, dance, and drum in the parades.