Mardi Gras. Two little words with an infinitely large explanation.  For some, it could be an event, an idea, or a day.For others, it could be a way of life, a piece of history, a state holiday, or an endless parade with countless memories. So, if you think you know Mardi Gras—that it’s all about booze and beads—think again.

What is Mardi Gras?

Here’s a primer—it’s so much larger than life that it’s hard to pinpoint in a few words what it is and what it represents. To do so, you need to travel back in time to Medieval Europe—specifically Italy and France. 

Mardi Gras takes its origin in the celebration of “Carnaval”, which derives from the Latin words ”carne” (meat) and “levare” (to take off). It celebrates the “boeuf gras,” or fat beef in English, which then turned to Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. It was also a time when the existing hierarchical order of the classes could be overturned and masquerade became real life, especially in Venice, where the citizens lived so lavishly. Even today, the city holds some of the most luxurious balls in the world. Mardi Gras was a time where people—both elites and commoners—could let go of their inhibitions and religious shackles. They were free to enjoy life to the fullest and express their needs and desires, all with the anonymity of a mask.

When is it?

So, when exactly is Mardi Gras? Well, Mardi Gras isn’t just a day, it’s a whole season. Preparations begin months in advance, sometimes years. It’s safe to just assume they never stop. The season officially starts on January 6th (for the Christian celebration of Epiphany) and lasts until the day before Lent on Ash Wednesday, or 40 days before Easter. This explains why the actual date of Mardi Gras can change depending on the years. Sometimes there is a long Mardi Gras season, and other times a short one. Fat Tuesday—also known as Shrove Tuesday—marks the final day of feasting and celebration before the Lent season begins on Ash Wednesday, which falls on a different day each year. When in doubt on figuring out the date of Mardi Gras, always count back from Easter.

This year, the merriment and mayhem of Mardi Gras will come to a climactic end on Tuesday, February 25th. And the major parade dates for Shreveport-Bossier are Sunday, February 9, the Krewe of Barkus and Meoux Pet Parade; Saturday, February 15, with the Krewe of Centaur Parade; Saturday, February 22, with the Krewe of Gemini Parade; and Sunday, February 23, with the Krewe of Highland Parade. But the parades aren’t’ the only thing that’s going on.

When did Mardi Gras begin in the United States? And where did it begin?

Here’s a primer—it’s so much larger than life that it’s hard to pinpoint in a few words what it is and what it represents. To do so, you need to travel back in time to Medieval Europe—specifically Italy and France. 

Mardi Gras takes its origin in the celebration of “Carnaval”, which derives from the Latin words ”carne” (meat) and “levare” (to take off). It celebrates the “boeuf gras,” or fat beef in English, which then turned to Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. It was also a time when the existing hierarchical order of the classes could be overturned and masquerade became real life, especially in Venice, where the citizens lived so lavishly. Even today, the city holds some of the most luxurious balls in the world. Mardi Gras was a time where people—both elites and commoners—could let go of their inhibitions and religious shackles. They were free to enjoy life to the fullest and express their needs and desires, all with the anonymity of a mask.

What's the deal with the parade floats?

At the center of the Mardi Gras celebration is the parade float. Today, Mardi Gras floats come in large sizes and are outfitted with elaborate decorations including larger-than-life papier-mache sculptures (called props), ornate hand-painted flowers, and flashing LED lights. Many “Super Krewes” have a signature float that rolls every Mardi Gras season. These signature structures tend to consist of multiple double-decker floats.

What's the story behind the beads?

Floats notoriously give out “throws,” which are exactly what they sound like—objects thrown into the crowd. Anything and everything can be thrown from hot dogs to stuffed animals to plastic cups to gold doubloons to MoonPies. Beads are the most ubiquitous throws, which are given by almost everyone. A known code of asking for throws is to shout the phrase “throw me something mister”—which is probably gendered because the first women’s parade did not hit the streets of New Orleans until 1941.

It’s considered a great honor to receive a throw. This custom—the throwing of beads and fake jewels—is thought to have started in New Orleans in the late 19th century when a Carnival king, who may or may not have been dressed liked Santa Claus, threw fake strands of gems and rings. Due to the popularity of these “throws,” other krewes soon followed suit. Which only makes sense—seeing before that krewes threw mostly food and dirt. And by the early 1920s, krewes were regularly handing out tiny trinkets to the parade followers. The original Mardi Gras beads were made from glass. Today, if you’re lucky, you can still catch a krewe throwing one of these vintage beads.

Why are the colors purple, green and gold?

The colors of the beads hold more significance than the act of throwing them. It is rumored that in 1872, when Grand Duke Alexis Romanov Alexandrovich visited New Orleans, his welcoming committee handed out purple, green, and gold beads to the party-goers that year, as they were the colors of his home. Twenty years later, for the 1892 parade, the King of Rex, also known as “The King of Carnival,” declared that the colors had meaning—purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power.

How did the King Cake come about?

What is the meaning of the baby?

By far the most delicious of Mardi Gras traditions is the King Cake and dates back to the Medieval Times when French, Belgian, and Spanish cultures commemorated the 12th day of Christmas with gifts and sweets. And, like many Christian folk traditions, it may originally have had pagan origins. During Saturnalia—the ancient Roman winter solstice celebration of the deity Saturn—the person who found a special item hidden in a cake would be “king of the day.” Biblically, the kings during this time would have been visiting the newborn baby Jesus—bringing gifts and sweets of their own. That’s where the “king” in king cake comes from. However, the precise reason behind the tiny baby figure in the cake may be a little bit more down-to-earth. In the 1940s, a New Orleans baker chanced upon a surplus supply of French porcelain dollhouse figures that first gave the cake that local spin.

Traditionally, a king cake is a coffeecake type pastry and is fried and doughy, glazed and frosted, typically in the Mardi Gras colors. They’re usually circular and braided, to resemble a King’s crown. Most cakes are baked with a tiny baby figurine on the inside, and whomever finds the toy—as tradition holds—must host the next big party (or at least buy the next year’s king cake).

Between Twelfth Night and Fat Tuesday, you can find king cakes in all the grocery stores in Shreveport-Bossier.

What are Mardi Gras krewes?

And what does it cost to join?

The Shreveport-Bossier area is home to some of Louisiana’s largest parading Mardi Gras organizations—known locally as Mardi Gras clubs or “krewes” (pronounced the same way as “crew”).  These krewes produce a busy calendar of parties, parades and other events each Carnival season.  Many krewes act as secret societies and make sure their participants’ identities are never publicized (which is why krewe members wear elaborate masks during parades). Each Krewe builds a float to represent their specific theme on parade days, and features a celebrity guest to regal their audience.

Want to join a krewe and ride in a parade? Joining a krewe in Shreveport-Bossier is really quiet simple. While dues vary, membership typically allows you to ride in the parade and attend the ball and other events throughout the year.  The Krewe of Centaur—the largest Mardi Gras Krewe in north Louisiana—dues are only $150 per person a year. Membership includes the opportunity to ride a throwing float or be in a walking-marching group in the parade, attendance to monthly meetings, full voting privileges, Krewe parade liability insurance, monthly newsletters, float group parties and events throughout the year, discounted ticket costs to Krewe parties and events.

Due to the membership size of many of the krewes—some in excess of 500 members—float ridership privileges are treasured and are becoming harder and harder to come by. So, the sooner you join in the new Mardi Gras year, and sign up for a position, the more likely it is you will find a float position.

Also, it’s important to remember if you do get the opportunity to ride in a parade—you have to pay for beads and trinkets for the entire parade route, which aren’t cheap.

Why do krewes have royalty?

On its surface, the election of Royalty may seem comical. However, being chosen is a very special honor and is taken very seriously by krewes in the area. Mardi Gras Royalty are typically elected because of their contributions and standing in the community. Being chosen to represent a Krewe as a King or Queen is an honor that announces to the community at large that these people have made our city a better place and we recognize their hard work and dedication. So, be sure to raise your cup and toast every King and Queen this Mardi Gras season!

Just remember ... pace yourself!

Carnival is a season; Mardi Gras is a day. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced—and everyone experiences it in their own way, whether they’re ensconced along a parade route, hopping between house parties, or wandering the festive streets with family and friends. However you do it, remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Enjoy!