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The History of Mardi Gras: 10 fun facts about the USA's biggest festival

If you’re planning a visit to Louisiana for “Mardi Gras season”, there are a few things you should know. First, Mardi Gras is the final Tuesday of Carnival season, not the weeks-long events itself. Second, NOLA might be the epicenter for American Mardi Gras, but it’s not the biggest Carnival party in the world — and Louisiana wasn’t even the first state to host Mardi Gras. Read on to learn other fun facts you probably didn’t know about the history of Mardi Gras, and how it is celebrated.

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3% of New Orleans’ GDP is from Mardi Gras

Just how big is Mardi Gras? In New Orleans alone, it generates nearly $900,000,000 of a direct and indirect economic impact. That equates to just over 3% of the gross domestic product for the city. One study found that these figures include a $14.3 million-dollar tax revenue and an ROI of $2.64 for every dollar spent on the Mardi Gras.

The first Mardi Gras was held in Alabama, not Louisiana

Visit Louisiana during Carnival season and you’ll get caught up in a celebration that’s been part of the city’s history since the 1700s, but that doesn’t include the very first Mardi Gras celebration in the United States. The history of Mardi Gras goes back a long way — in fact, the first Mardi Gras party took place more than a century earlier, next door in Alabama.

The area that became the city of Mobile is where a French-Canadian explorer named Pierre Le Moyne set up a camp called Point du Mardi Gras. He threw a party in 1703, and the rest is history (or recorded history, at least from 1837 onwards).

Read more: The history of Mari Gras in New Orleans

The Mistick Krewe of Comus is the oldest Krewe in New Orleans

The first written chapter of New Orleans’s Mardi Gras was penned in 1837, but it took another 20 years for the concept of a Krewe to manifest. Celebrations weren’t as spectacular as they are today, so a small group of men organized the Mistick Krewe of Comus to give the holiday the jolt it needed. They held a parade and a ball, reenergizing the city’s love for Carnival season.

The Twelfth Night Revelers were the first to throw

On the tails of the Mistick Krewe of Comus came the Twelfth Night Revelers, founded in 1870. They may be the second Krewe, but they’re the first to start an iconic tradition in the history of Mardi Gras: throwing items from the parade floats into the crowd. Oddly enough, it was a Krewe member dressed as Santa Claus who tossed the first trinkets, though today you’ll rarely see a Santa stumbling down the parade route.

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The French Quarter doesn’t host official parades

If you’ve dreamed of watching parades roll down Bourbon Street, then you’ll wake up to a different reality. The French Quarter is not permitted to host official parades, for the same reason why you’d think it should: for tourists to enjoy. The fact is that the French Quarter’s already cramped streets are so filled with tourists on any day of the year that running a parade through the streets would be impractical, potentially dangerous, and likely unenjoyable save for a few people at the front of the crowd or up on the bar balconies.

Courir de Mardi Gras is older than Louisiana

St. Landry Parish in Louisiana is the home of a celebration in the history of Mardi Gras that predates the Bayou State’s statehood: Courir de Mardi Gras. This unique celebration goes all the way back to medieval France where masked and costumed revelers run (or courir) to gather ingredients for a community pot of gumbo. 

In St. Landry Parish today, you’ll find the two-thousand townspeople of Eunice running through the central Louisiana countryside, chasing chickens and grabbing food from spectators before ending their 15-mile jaunt in front of a steamy pot of gumbo.

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Nearly a million king cakes are sold in New Orleans during Carnival

Beignets may be the favorite treat year-round, but throughout the history of Mardi Gras, king cake has reigned supreme. King cake is an oval Danish dough cake colored purple, green, and gold, traditionally filled with cinnamon or cream cheese. 

Bakeries across the city start slinging king cakes on Three Kings Day and don’t stop until Mardi Gras ends. Thousands upon thousands of people queue up at Angelo Brocato, Brennan’s King Cakes, Cochon, and Manny Randazzo’s King Cakes for hours on end. Some bakeries put a spin on the Carnival classic, adding in other flavors or wrapping the concept into ice cream, bon bons, and even coffees.

Carnival takes many shapes in and around Louisiana

Carnival begins on January 6th, which is the Three Kings Day holiday, and ends on Fat Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras. Many may know Mardi Gras for its parades, but there’s much more to the festivities than the floats you see photos of. 

Krewes organize a variety of different parades and not all are a raucous affair. Shreveport’s parades tend to be more geared towards Louisiana families while Missouri’s Mardi Gras Purina Pet Parade in St. Louis is a howling good time for pets. In addition to parades, many Krewes organize invite-only masquerade balls, like the ones in New Orleans and Lake Charles.

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Mardi Gras is an official holiday in Louisiana

The history of Mardi Gras has always been associated with a day of celebrations. The day was formally made a holiday in 1875 when the Mardi Gras Act was signed into law by Governor Warmoth. 

Louisiana locals may think nothing of it, but being able to celebrate Mardi Gras as a legitimate holiday is a unique privilege. The United States formally recognizes a few cultural dates as national holidays: Thanksgiving and Christmas being the most significant. Some national holidays, like Juneteenth, were officially recognized by individual states but then became national holidays.

Mardi Gras stands alone as one of the few nationally celebrated cultural events that is only an official holiday in one state. Halloween and Valentine’s Day are still commercial holidays, and even Massachusetts, the epicenter of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, hasn’t made its hallmark festivity a state holiday (though, technically, March 17th in Suffolk County is officially Evacuation Day: a day celebrating when British troops left Boston during the Revolutionary War, and all public and government services continue to operate).

New Orleans’ Carnival is far from the largest in the world

As iconic as Carnival season and Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans are, the Big Easy isn’t the biggest. 

The celebration of Carnival season and Fat Tuesday goes way back to ancient Roman times. What we know today as beads and plastic babies in king cakes was once a different spectacle. Christianity evolved pagan and Roman harvest festivals into pre-Lent celebrations, which is why no one should be surprised to hear that Venice, Italy’s Carnival is larger than New Orleans’. The biggest bash, however, belongs to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Have you been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, or planning to go? Tell us all about it in the comments below!

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