Louisiana’s Biggest Annual Celebration: Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras (MAR-dee graw) refers to events beginning on or after Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany in the Catholic church, until the day before Ash Wednesday, the Catholic church’s first day of Lent. Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, referring to the practice of eating rich foods before the religious obligations of the Lenten season. Fat Tuesday is also referred to as Shrove Tuesday, which refers to the word shrive meaning to confess. In some Christian traditions, the religious rite of confession is a requirement before Lent. The period between Epiphany and Fat Tuesday is also referred to as the Carnival season.

In Louisiana, Mardi Gras is more than eating a large meal prior to Lent. In the weeks leading to Ash Wednesday, the most popular public activity is parades. They are organized by krewes, or private social clubs, which select new themes each year. Themes are usually historical, mythological or satirical in nature. The New Orleans area has more than 60 parading krewes. There are many more throughout south Louisiana as well.

Parades include numerous floats reflecting the year’s theme and krewe members in themed costumes and masks ride on the floats and throw tens of thousands of colored beads, themed cups and doubloons (commemorative coins), trinkets, toys and items of humorous or historical nature. One of the most treasured “throws” a New Orleans Mardi Gras participant can catch is a painted coconut from the Krewe of Zulu. The Zulu coconut tradition dates back more than 100 years.

Marching between floats are local bands, dance troupes, clowns and flambeau carriers. Meaning flame-torch, flambeaus originally served to better illuminate night parades for spectators. While modern floats are extraordinarily lighted with modern technology, the tradition of flambeau carriers remains generations later.

Other popular Mardi Gras activities include sharing king cakes, cinnamon roll-like, oval pastries decorated with purple, green and gold icing and sugar, the official colors of Mardi Gras which represent justice, faith and power respectively. A small plastic baby or another small trinket is hidden inside the cake, and tradition dictates the person who gets the cake slice hiding the baby supplies the next gathering’s cake.

Krewes also throw private masquerade balls and events that are considered part of the winter social season.

New Orleans is the most famous American destination for Mardi Gras activities, but virtually every city and town in Louisiana has some sort of Mardi Gras celebration on or before Fat Tuesday. Large Louisiana cities such as Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Lake Charles, Lafayette and Houma host multiple Mardi Gras parades each year.

An unusual Mardi Gras celebration is found in the rural areas surrounding small towns in Cajun Country such as Mamou, Eunice and Church Point. The Courir de Mardi Gras, or the running of the Mardi Gras, involves costumed locals going house to house on horseback, performing tricks and stunts in an effort to secure donations of chicken, sausage, vegetables and rice that will be used at the end of the day to make a massive gumbo for the community at a downtown street party, usually featuring live Cajun and zydeco music.

The term Mardi Gras first arrived in North America with the French Catholic Le Moyne Brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. The pair was sent to Louisiana by French King Louis XIV in the late 1600s to defend France’s claim to the colony. Bienville and Iberville entered the mouth of the Mississippi River on March 2, 1699, which was Lundi Gras, and named a point 60 miles downriver of present day New Orleans Point du Mardi Gras as they reached it on Fat Tuesday.

Krewes began forming and parading in New Orleans in the mid-1800s. The first krewes included Comus and Momus. A few of the city’s early krewes still exist today – the popular krewes of Rex and Proteus began parading in 1872 and 1882 respectively. Other popular parades are put on by super krewes Orpheus, Bacchus and Endymion. 

Mardi Gras Extended Calendar

  • Feb. 13, 2018
  • March 5, 2019
  • Feb. 25, 2020
  • Feb. 16, 2021
  • March 1, 2022
  • Feb. 21, 2023
  • Feb. 13, 2024
  • March 4, 2025

Popular Mardi Gras Attractions

  • Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World in New Orleans is a working float assembly plant and storage warehouse. The Kern family has been in the float construction business since the mid-1900s.
  • The Presbytere, a historic church building and Louisiana State Museum property in the New Orleans French Quarter, has a permanent exhibit on the history and evolution of Mardi Gras in the city.
  • The Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans has exhibits on of Mardi Gras Indians, an African-American Carnival tradition that dates back to the mid-19th Century.
  • Capitol Park Museum in downtown Baton Rouge has permanent exhibits on urban Mardi Gras and rural Courir de Mardi Gras traditions in Louisiana.
  • Krewe of Gemini Mardi Gas Museum in Bossier City is home one of the largest displays of Mardi Gras costumes in Louisiana.
  • Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu at Central School Arts and Humanities Center in Lake Charles is a permanent exhibit on Mardi Gras traditions in southwest Louisiana.
  • The Prairie Acadian Cultural Center, a National Park Service property in Eunice, has a permanent exhibit on Courir de Mardi Gras.