What Is Mardi Gras? Everything to Know About the History of the Holiday

You've seen the Mardi Gras celebrations with beads, boas, and elaborate costumes—but did you know the religious significance behind the holiday? We've already entered the official Mardi Gras season (also known as Carnival), so now's the perfect time to brush up on the history of the holiday before you dive into your king cake.

To understand the season of Mardi Gras, we have to rewind all the way back to the 12 days of Christmas, which begins on Christmas Day. The twelfth day of Christmas—referred to as Epiphany—marks the day when the wise men finally arrived in Bethlehem to see baby Jesus. (This is why it's tradition to take your Christmas tree down on January 6.) Epiphany marks the official end to the Christmas season and the beginning of the Mardi Gras season, which is celebrated between Epiphany and Fat Tuesday (the Tuesday before Lent begins).

Related: This Is Why There's a Plastic Baby in Your King Cake

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When Is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras is traditionally celebrated on 'Fat Tuesday,' which is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. This year, Mardi Gras is on Tuesday, February 16, 2021.

What's the Difference Between Mardi Gras and Carnival?

Many people confuse the single day of Mardi Gras with the celebratory season that stretches from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday, but they're actually two different things. The French word for Tuesday is 'Mardi' and the word for fat is 'Gras,' which means Mardi Gras refers to the holiday that falls on Fat Tuesday. The months-long celebration that stretches from January 6 through the week before Easter is officially known as Carnival.

But while they're technically two different things, the way Carnival and Mardi Gras are celebrated are very similar. Traditionally, the Mardi Gras season is all about indulging in good food and drink in the days leading up to Lent, because traditionally the Lenten season is spent fasting from these indulgences. The season of Carnival is traditionally celebrated with feasts, parties, and all kinds of celebrations, which all culminate with the day of Mardi Gras, which is basically the last hurrah before Lent.

The History of Mardi Gras in America

The tradition of Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years and is celebrated all over the world, but some of the most well-known and over-the-top celebrations are held in Brazil, Venice, and of course, New Orleans. But how did it become such an iconic holiday in America?

The first documented Mardi Gras celebration in America was March 3, 1699. French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Sieur de Bienville had traveled to America by boat and docked near what is now New Orleans, and named their docking location 'Point du Mardi Gras' after hosting a small celebration.

As other French immigrants traveled to the American south, Mardi Gras celebrations became increasingly popular. But in 1762, Spain took control of New Orleans and the Spanish leaders outlawed the Mardi Gras celebrations they deemed to be too rowdy. But when Louisiana became a state in 1812, it was back to business as usual—and the rest is history.

The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans took place in 1827, when a large group of students came back from visiting Paris. They wanted to recreate the French culture they'd fallen in love with, so they wore elaborate, colorful costumes and marched through the streets of New Orleans—and there's been a parade in the city every year since.

Traditionally, the week of Mardi Gras draws millions of people to New Orleans to see the parades and partake in the celebrations. Because of the ongoing pandemic, celebrations will have to be an at-home affair. The city of New Orleans announced there would be no in-person parade this year, and has asked tourists to stay home to help them follow safety measures and social distancing guidelines.

How to Celebrate Mardi Gras at Home

You may not be able to dance through the streets of New Orleans or catch a Mardi Gras parade this year, but that doesn't mean you can't properly celebrate the holiday. Here are a few fun ways to celebrate Mardi Gras at home.

Wear Beads

Green, purple, and gold beads are perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of a Mardi Gras celebration, and luckily they're easy enough to distribute at home. Use them to decorate your house, or give them out to each member of your household to wear for the day.

Buy It: Mardi Gras Bead Necklaces ($8 for 48, Oriental Trading)

Bake a King Cake

King cake is a classic Mardi Gras dessert and a must-have at any celebration. Bake one yourself (here's our favorite recipe!) or pick up a pre-made mix. Just don't forget to place a plastic baby in the cake before you serve it!

Buy It: Mardi Gras King Cake Mix ($7, World Market)

Have an At-Home Parade

If you're missing the big parades, why not have one at home? Have the kids dress up in their most festive green, purple, and yellow attire, then parade around the living room. Or, put on a socially-distanced show for your neighbors and parade around the block.

Buy It: Mardi Gras Feather Boa ($10, Oriental Trading Co.)

Make Traditional Recipes

Spend the day in the kitchen making a few of your favorite recipes from the Cajun South. Cook up a delicious gumbo recipe or prepare a tasty shrimp and sausage boil.