Frequently asked questions
Q: Are Carnival and Mardi Gras the same thing?
A: Technically, "Carnival" refers to the period of feasting and fun that begins on Jan. 6 (the Feast of the Epiphany) and ends on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the final day of revelry before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins. It is also common for people to refer to the entire season as Mardi Gras and, for clarity, to call Fat Tuesday "Mardi Gras Day."
Q: When was the first Mardi Gras?
A: The first Mardi Gras parade was held in New Orleans on Feb. 24, 1857, by the Krewe of Comus. They began the tradition of presenting a parade with floats and following it with a ball for the krewe and their guests.
Q: What is the significance of the Mardi Gras colors, and where did they come from?
A: Rex, the King of Carnival, selected the Mardi Gras colors and assigned meaning to them in 1892. Purple stands for justice, green for faith and gold for power.
Q: Why are masks worn?
A: By law, float riders must always have a mask on. On Fat Tuesday, masking is legal for everyone else, and the elaborate masks that some wear add to the fun.
Q: How is a king chosen?
A: The method of selecting a king varies from krewe to krewe. Some krewes hold random drawings, while others invite a celebrity guest to be their king. Rex, the King of Carnival, is chosen by the School of Design, who sponsors the Rex parade. His identity is revealed the day before the parade.
Q: How long have "throws" been around?
A: The tradition of float riders throwing trinkets to the crowds began in the 1870s and continues today. Typical throws include beads, cups, doubloons and stuffed animals.
Q: How does Mardi Gras benefit the New Orleans economy?
A: Economic impact reports indicate that Mardi Gras generates over $1 billion in annual spending.
Q: How is the city’s government involved?
A: City governments are not involved in coordinating Mardi Gras parades. The governments issue parade permits, but that is the extent of their involvement. Krewes independently schedule and coordinate their own parades.
Q: Who organizes and pays for Mardi Gras?
A: Mardi Gras parade krewes are private, nonprofit organizations whose members get together year round to plan their parade's theme, costumes and unique throws. Each Carnival Club, as they are known, is individually funded by its members. They support their krewe through dues, sales of krewe-related merchandise to their members and fundraising. Mardi Gras parade krewes sometimes have corporate sponsors.The city of New Orleans is not involved in coordinating Mardi Gras parades; its only involvement is to issue parade permits to each individual Mardi Gras krewe that schedules and coordinates its own parade.
• The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced to medieval Europe, passing through Rome and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries to the French House of the Bourbons. From here, the traditional revelry of "Boeuf Gras," or fatted calf, followed France to her colonies. On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans, and named it "Pointe du Mardi Gras" when his men realized it was the eve of the festive holiday. Bienville also established "Fort Louis de la Louisiane" (which is now Mobile) in 1702. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated America's very first Mardi Gras.
• New Orleans was established in 1718 by Bienville. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans, but not with the parades we know today. In the early 1740s, Louisiana's governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls, which became the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today.
• The earliest reference to Mardi Gras "Carnival" appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body. That year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans.
• 1872 was the year that a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival, Rex, to preside over the first daytime parade. To honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, the businessmen introduced Romanoff's family colors of purple, green and gold as Carnival's official colors. This was also the Mardi Gras season that Carnival's improbable anthem, "If Ever I Cease to Love," was cemented, due in part to the Duke's fondness for the tune.