What Is the Real Meaning of Mardi Gras?

Updated December 23, 2019
Mardi Gras party

You may have donned a mask or worn some beads for Mardi Gras celebrations in school or abroad, but found yourself wondering "What is the meaning of Mardi Gras?" Understanding what Mardi Gras is and why people celebrate it can help you appreciate the true meaning of this fun holiday.

Mardi Gras Translation and Definition

Mardi Gras is defined as Shrove Tuesday or the last day before Lent and "is a day of merrymaking and carnival." Since Lent includes 40 days of fasting for some, this is one last chance to enjoy excess before going without. The word "Mardi" means "Tuesday" in French and the word "Gras" means "fat," so the translation of Mardi Gras is literally "Fat Tuesday."

Mardi Gras Origins and History

Masquerade and masked balls have been celebrated since the Middle Ages and Mardi Gras is only one of the more famous examples of these elaborate costume parties seen throughout history around the world.

Where Did Mardi Gras Originate?

The origins of Mardi Gras celebrations are often attributed to Medieval Europe, particularly Rome and France. In the beginning, Mardi Gras was known as Carnival or Carnaval, meaning to take away meat, and started with Pagan spring and fertility rituals.

Where Did Mardi Gras Start in the U.S.?

While many believe Mardi Gras originated in New Orleans, the truth is the celebration as you know it today originated in the U.S. as the Mobile, Alabama Mardi Gras. The first Mardi Gras celebration happened in Mobile in 1703 and the first Mardi Gras parade was held there in 1840. Celebrations in New Orleans didn't start until the 1730s.

Why do People Celebrate Mardi Gras?

Traditionally, people celebrated Mardi Gras as a last day of excess and a last chance to deplete their stocks of foods that couldn't be eaten during Lent. The celebration became a way to revel in excess before people focused on the religious rite of going without. Today, many people celebrate Mardi Gras as a way to show off and have fun with friends, family, and strangers.

Where do People Celebrate Mardi Gras?

Countries around the world with large Roman Catholic populations celebrate Mardi Gras.

  • In Brazil, they celebrate a week long Carnival that culminates on Fat Tuesday.
  • In Quebec, Canada they host a Winter Carnival.
  • The German celebration is called Karneval, Fastnacht or Fasching.
  • In Denmark, they call it Fastevlan.
  • Mardi Gras celebrations in France provide the inspiration for the holiday's iconic name and traditions.
  • New Orleans hosts one of the biggest celebrations as Louisiana is the only state to proclaim Mardi Gras as a legal holiday.

Meaning of Mardi Gras Traditions

Mardi Gras traditions tend to be similar no matter what country you're celebrating in.

What do Traditional Mardi Gras Colors Mean?

The traditional Mardi Gras colors are purple, green, and gold. Green represents faith, purple represents justice, and gold symbolizes power. This color scheme is thought to be borrowed from one of the oldest New Orleans krewes, or social clubs, Rex Krewe.

What Is the Purpose of Mardi Gras Beads?

"Parade throws" or trinkets thrown from Mardi Gras parade floats are believed to stem from a Rex Krewe tradition in the 1920s. They threw beaded necklaces featuring their krewe colors and other krewes soon followed suit. Contrary to popular belief, nudity is not required to receive parade throws like beads.

Why do People Wear Masks for Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras masks were meant to help guests hide their identity as they engaged in Mardi Gras debauchery and mingled with other classes of people. They also serve as outward representations of parts of the wearer's personality. By law, anyone riding an official Mardi Gras float in New Orleans has to wear a mask.

What do People Eat on Mardi Gras and Why?

Traditional Mardi Gras foods vary slightly from culture to culture, but typically include ingredients that aren't allowed during lent. Since you can't use the ingredients for the next couple weeks, the ideas is to clear them from your home by enjoying them now.

  • The king cake was borrowed from Roman traditions and it's a symbol of good luck and gives you special responsibilities for the day if you find the king buried in your piece of cake

  • Pancakes and crepes are traditional Mardi Gras foods because they were great recipes for clearing out your stock of eggs, milk, and butter, which you wouldn't eat during Lent.

  • Doughnuts like French beignets or Polish paczkis are also popular because they use lard and other ingredients not permitted during lent.

Let the Good Times Roll

Mardi Gras is all about celebrating what you have and celebrating it in abundance. No matter where or how you celebrate Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, or Carnival, make sure you have a great time.

What Is the Real Meaning of Mardi Gras?