How Mardi Gras Works

What Does Mardi Gras Celebrate?

beads on a balcony in New Orleans beads on a balcony in New Orleans
Mardi Gras beads line a balcony in New Orleans. Mardi Gras was celebrated in that city as far back as the 18th century. Erik Pronske Photography/Getty Images

Considering the raucous nature of Mardi Gras, you might be surprised to learn that the event has religious roots. Festivities start in New Orleans each year on January 6, aka Twelfth Night or the feast of the Epiphany — the day, tradition has it, that the three kings first visited Jesus Christ. Mardi Gras, the French phrase for Fat Tuesday, is the day-long highlight of the season. While Mardi Gras most certainly has pagan, pre-Christian origins, the Roman Catholic Church legitimized the festival as a brief celebration before the penitential season of Lent. The idea was to eat up all the rich foods in the house ahead of time, so as not to be tempted during the fasting period of Lent. Mardi Gras Day, a legal holiday in New Orleans, is set to occur 46 days (the 40 days of Lent plus six Sundays) before Easter and can come as early as February 3 or as late as March 9.

There is evidence that Mardi Gras was being celebrated in New Orleans as early as the 18th century. Mardi Gras was first mentioned in North America in 1699 in the writings of French explorer Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville, who camped on the Mississippi River about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of the present location of New Orleans. Knowing that the date, March 3, was being celebrated as a holiday in his native France, he christened the site Point du Mardi Gras.

During the next century, the celebration of Mardi Gras included private masked balls and random street maskings in the cities of Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans. By the 1820s, maskers on foot and in decorated carriages began to appear on Fat Tuesday, and in 1837 the first documented procession took place in New Orleans, but it bore no resemblance to today's carnival.