Mardi Gras: What I Knew, What I’ve Learned, and What I Still Don’t Know

February 1, 2015 (by Angela)

Mardi Gras! Who hasn’t heard about it? Ever since I was in college, my curiosity has made me want to go to Mardi Gras, but a variety of reasons kept me from doing so. When younger, it was $$$ that was the issue. As I got older, it was finding time in the schedule. If I am completely honest, being fairly modest, the stories of what people “had” to do to get beads had me concerned about being in such a situation. Mentally connecting the rumors and stories about the loose morals and wild behavior often associated with Mardi Gras and its religious connection was confusing for me.

Mardi Gras most likely originated in a pagan Roman celebration that pre-dated the birth of Christ, and over the centuries it morphed into the pre-Lenten celebration that it is today. This celebration, also known as “Carnival,” precedes and culminates on “Mardi Gras” (also known as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday), which is the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar. At, the details of the history of Mardi Gras in North America is briefly explained. “Though most people associate Mardi Gras with New Orleans, Mobile, Alabama, began holding the festival in 1703, 15 years before it started in Louisiana. Based on a French Catholic tradition, the celebration is now a city-wide holiday in Mobile, where even schools close down to celebrate.”

Okay, so of all of that, I knew most of what I’ve just written except the part about the birthplace of Mardi Gras in North America being Mobile instead of New Orleans. The stories I heard about the craziness of the Mardi Gras celebrations may or may not be true (and it may be selectively true); these are things I’ve heard but don’t know first hand. Other things I’ve learned over the last few weeks are that the Mardi Gras season celebrations officially begin weeks before Fat Tuesday, but folks actually start decorating for Mardi Gras and making King Cakes around the first of the year. When Jim and I toured Mobile on my birthday, January 4th, we saw what we now recognize as Mardi Gras decorations all over the downtown area; we found beads scattered along sidewalks, and we had folks at visitor centers trying to serve us King Cake. I’ve learned that there is not just one, or even a few, Mardi Gras parades during the season. In the Mobile area, there are dozens and dozens of parades, some following one right after the other, beginning at least four weeks before Mardi Gras. Decorating for Mardi Gras is as big in this area as decorating for Halloween or Christmas; it feels more like Halloween since folks dress in costumes for parties, parades and other events. As of today, I’ve experienced King Cake, the traditional dessert of Mardi Gras season.  After seeing the messy cake the lady at the visitor center tried to serve us (she made it), I’ve been afraid to try King Cake (also known as King’s Cake and other names). It is my understanding that the cake is made from all of the fats and sweet things in a person’s home, so the home is free of such items during Lent. You can read more about King Cake traditions here.

Half of the king cake not yet eaten

Half of the king cake not yet eaten

Part of the King Cake with beads and plastic baby Jesus

Part of the King Cake with beads and plastic baby Jesus

Today, I got brave enough to purchase a small (individual size) King Cake and give it a try.  The one I purchased was blueberry and cream cheese. It came to me decorated in the traditional colors of Mardi Gras (purple, green, and gold). The colors are symbolic: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.  Today, it also had a small, plastic baby in the center, representing baby Jesus, bringing luck and prosperity to the one who finds it. (That person has additional privileges and responsibilities during Mardi Gras.) My cake was also topped with green Mardi Gras beads. Actually, the cake is traditional for 12th night and Epiphany Day, but it is baked and enjoyed during all of Mardi Gras season.

We’ve not yet attended any of the parades or other Mardi Gras events, but it is my hope that Jim and I will attend at least one parade each week between now and Fat Tuesday, which is February 17th this year. Then, I’ll be able to learn more about the festival, more about “Carnival.”  It will be then, and only then, that I can address the truth of the stories I’ve heard or be able to compare the behavior at different events and parades. I’m looking forward to what may be my once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience Mardi Gras.  It was not the reason we came to this area, but since we are here, we need to experience this age-old tradition with the locals. I’m sure we will write about those experiences later on.

What can you share with us about Mardi Gras?

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