Mardi Gras 2021: New Orleans Mardi Gras Traditions

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Traditions are labeled as a belief or practice passed down within a group or society, such as putting up a tree on Christmas or eating turkey on Thanksgiving. These traditions often hold symbolic meanings or a special significance within their origins. Much like most major holidays, Mardi Gras has its own set of traditions that has been passed down for generations. From food to Krewes and everything in between, the traditions of Mardi Gras are guaranteed to provide a good time.

Krewes

Krewes
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One of the most well-known terms associated with Mardi Gras, a Krewe is a social organization that hosts parades or balls for Carnival season. While some can be highly secretive and exclusive, Krewes can have open membership available for anyone who wishes to join. They can be formed by neighborhoods, general interest, and even involvement in the community.  

Krewe members are assessed fees, ranging in prices determined by size, that are put towards paying for each group’s parade and ball for the year. These fees often determine if members have to work to build the Krewe’s floats themselves or if professionals can be hired instead. While “super krewes” do not possess an official definition, they typically have over 1,000 active members and maintain at least 500 riders for each Carnival season.

Royalty

royalty
Image credit: Lafayette Travel

Where there is a krewe, there is usually royalty. Most krewes select a royal each year, consisting of a king, queen, dukes, and maids. The queen varies from krewe to krewe. In traditional all-male krewes, the queen is usually a debutante; however, in all-female krewes, a member is typically crowned as the queen.

“The King of Carnival” is anointed each year. Per tradition, the Krewe of Rex makes the selection, and the king is presented a symbolic key to the city by the mayor on Mardi Gras day.

Parades

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Image credit: Mardi Gras Insider Tours

With Carnival roots dating back as far as the Middle Ages, the first “official” Mardi Gras celebration took place in 1833. It all began when a wealthy landowner sponsored a “creole-style” celebration that was supervised by city officials. While they later became “official”, Mardi Gras celebrations have always possessed a rowdy and disorganized nature. The modern parade era was born when the Mistick Krewe of Comus held a 2-float night parade on Mardi Gras Day of 1857.

The tradition of float riders throwing prizes including candies, bon-bons and eventually glass beads, was enough to draw a crowd each year. As time went on, more krewes joined in the celebration, causing an influx in parading in the 1950s. By 1958, parades moved into suburbs and continued to pop up well into the 1970s.

Throws

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A “throw” is used as a collective term to describe objects that are thrown from floats to parade-goers. Glass beads were commonly used as throws up until the 1960’s, when they were switched to less expensive and more durable plastic beads. The lower price point allowed for float riders to purchase greater quantities, resulting in throws becoming much more common.

In the 1990s, larger and more elaborate beads became the most sought-after throws when parade goers began losing interest in the cheaper, smaller beads. As a result, krewes began to create limited edition beads and plush toys that were unique to their specific krewe. Today, parade goers are sure to catch a wide variety of items, including LED- powered prizes and stuffed toys simply by yelling the popular phrase, “throw me something mister!”

Colors

colors

In 1872, The Krewe of Rex began the Mardi Gras color tradition with their parade theme “Symbolism of Colors” as a way to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke, Alexi Alexandrovich Romanov. It was around this time the official colors of Mardi Gras were determined to be purple, green, and gold. Each color possesses its own meaning: purple was a symbol for justice, green symbolized faith, and gold holds the meaning of power.

While it is not fully known why these three colors specifically were chosen, many have created their own theory. Errol Flynn Laborde, a famous local historian, concluded that the three colors were chosen to represent a kingdom. This was based on the fact that flags of major countries such as the United States and Great Britain follow a tri-color pattern. As for the specific colors, Laborde believed it came down to symbolism, making purple and gold an obvious choice, and green the best last option.

Masks

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While the tradition of wearing masks has dated back throughout different societies for centuries, Mardi Gras masks, like many other traditions, originated in ritual celebrations. Masks began as a way for the wearers to escape the tight constraints of society and social class. Carnival-goers were given a new sense of freedom, allowing them to be who they wanted to be and interact with anyone despite class standings simply by wearing a mask.

Today, masks are a major staple in Mardi Gras tradition. In fact, it is required by law for each float rider to wear a mask. On Fat Tuesday, everyone is allowed to wear masks if they please, adding to the air of excitement and magic that is seen throughout Mardi Gras traditions.

King Cake

Mardi Gras traditions Cajun Encounters
Image Credit: Food Network

Starting on January 6th in honor of Epiphany, otherwise known as Twelfth Night, the tastiest Mardi Gras tradition begins. King Cakes are a sweet dough twisted into a round, usually filled with cream or fruit and often topped with colored sugar or fruit. Typical Louisiana-style cakes are usually decorated in the well-known Mardi Gras colors: purple, green, and gold.   

Twelfth Night marks the arrival of the three wise men, or kings, who delivered gifts to the baby Jesus. It is because of this that a plastic baby is hidden within king cakes today. The tradition of hiding a small plastic baby was popularized in the 1950’s by a commercial bakery by the name of McKenzie. According to Mardi Gras tradition, the person who finds the hidden baby in their piece must host next year’s celebration.

Flambeaux

Mardi Gras traditions Cajun Encounters
Image credit: Oxford American

Flambeaux is one Mardi Gras tradition that is believed to have blossomed well beyond its original practical purpose and into a revered art form. Flambeaux, or flaming torch, debuted in 1857 as a way to light Carnival parades at night. Flambeaux began as a necessity, but soon evolved into a magical spectacle. Men carrying the torches began to dance while they would twirl and wave their sticks of fire, resulting in tips being thrown at these performers.

To keep this tradition alive, Mardi Gras krewes begin their parades with flambeaux out of respect for those that have come before them. While the torches have since received modern upgrades to keep the flames flowing all night, parade goers still offer tips to the performers.

Experience More Traditions

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The deep-rooted traditions of New Orleans culture, especially those seen during Mardi Gras, keeps visitors coming back year after year. A little taste of the New Orleans spirit is never enough. If you find yourself in town and are looking for a little adventure that features a unique and up-close experience with local wildlife, look no further that Cajun Encounters.

Cajun Encounters is a great family-friendly experience with enough excitement to pique your interest. Guests are able to experience the beauty of one of the most untarnished ecosystems in America first-hand, and if that is not enough, there are plenty of educational opportunities to learn about the plants and animals that inhabit it. Guests are guaranteed the best educational experience possible with trained experts as their guides. Cajun Encounters is working hard to ensure not only the satisfaction but also the safety of its visitors by implementing proper COVID-19 protocol. 

Be sure to book in advance to ensure your spot. You do not want to miss out on this incredible experience!

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