Southern Mom Loves: Want to Celebrate Mardi Gras? Here are the Essentials.

Want to Celebrate Mardi Gras? Here are the Essentials.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

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Mardi Gras, which roughly translates into "Shrove Tuesday", is the most popular time of the year for tourism in New Orleans. Thousands of visitors from all over the world visit to partake in the city-wide festivities every year. While the holiday has become known for raucous partying, the true traditions of Mardi Gras aren't as risqué, and it's celebrated all over in more family-friendly ways. Let's take a closer look at Mardi Gras traditions and history and some ways you can celebrate Mardi Gras wherever you are.

What and When is Mardi Gras?

From Wikipedia: "Mardi Gras, also called Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday in English, refers to events of the Carnival celebrations, beginning on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday", reflecting the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season."

Mardi Gras is celebrated in many places all over the world and is a day of indulgence before the fasting of Lent. The main celebration takes places the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent, but depending on where you are, the Carnival season starts at different times. 

In New Orleans, they consider Mardi Gras to stretch the entire period from Twelfth Night (the last night of Christmas, which begins Epiphany) to Ash Wednesday with balls and parades scheduled intermittently until the big bash period about a week before Fat Tuesday, which falls on March 5th this year (updated for 2019!)


Mardi Gras has actually been celebrated for hundreds of years. It was brought to Louisiana by French explorers in 1699. It wasn't until l838 that parades began as a way to celebrate the day. In 1857, the holiday was almost put to an end because the drunkenness and violence during the two-week period leading up to the holiday was getting out of hand. The Krewes came into being as a way to create a safer environment for celebrating the big day.

Krewes & Kings

The Krewes came into being as a way to tone down the raucousness of Mardi Gras. A "Krewe" is an organization that puts on a parade or ball for the Carnival season and members are assessed fees in order to pay for the parade or ball. Some also make a point of supporting charities and good causes.

The Mistick Krewe of Comus is the oldest krewe, but since 1872 there has been a Krewe of Rex or "King of the Carnival", the most prominent Krewe. A person is chosen to serve as king every year, but must keep it secret all year until Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras, and the king gets a symbolic key to the city from the Mayor.

The Beads, Doubloons, & Zulu Coconuts

Beads have been thrown to the crowds for over a hundred years. Their purple, gold, and green colors have been used since 1872 and hold their own importance. Green is to signify faith, purple is justice, and gold is power. The colors were chosen based on the Russian Grand Duke Alexis' royal house. Today plastic beads, toys, cups, and other mementos are tossed to the crowds from parade floats.

The Krewe of Rex wanted something new to throw in the 1950's, so doubloon coins were designed from aluminum and stamped with the Krewe's images. They were a hit and many other Krewes have followed suit over the years, making doubloons out of many materials and in many colors. Mardi Gras doubloons are still considered to be the most collectible of throws. You can find plastic doubloons online for your own celebrations.

Of course, if you want a real prize, you need to score a hand-decorated Zulu Coconut from the Krewe of Zulu (the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.) The decorated coconuts are rare to get and have been a Mardi Gras tradition since the early '50s.

Growing up in Lacombe, Louisiana, my family celebrated by going to the more family-friendly parades in the area (yes, there are adult-themed parades), but believe it or not, it has NEVER been a tradition for women to show their assets to get throws and those who request women to do so can be arrested on the parade route. The more you know....

The Pancake Breakfast

From Wikipedia: "Shrove Tuesday (also known in Commonwealth countries as Pancake Tuesday or Pancake day) is a day in February or March preceding Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), which is celebrated in some countries by consuming pancakes. In others, especially those where it is called Mardi Gras or some translation thereof, this is a carnival day, and also the last day of "fat eating" or "gorging" before the fasting period of Lent."

Do you really need another reason to have pancakes? Eat up!

The King Cake

King cake is another old tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. The cake was made to represent the Three Kings that brought gifts to baby Jesus. Enjoyed throughout the season beginning on the Twelfth Night (January 6 – Mardi Gras), the pastry we know today is much different than it was in the Middle Ages. The "cake" is more of a pastry, either rolled with cinnamon butter inside the layers, like a cinnamon roll, or filled with a cream cheese or praline cream filling, and usually shaped or braided into a ring. Colored sugars in the colors of Mardi Gras are also added to the top.

In the 1940s, a bakery began baking plastic babies into the cake to represent the baby Jesus. The person who gets the baby in their piece is the "King", but with great power comes great responsibility: whoever becomes king also has an obligation to bring a King Cake to the next event or host next year's party, depending on the situation.

Mam Papaul's makes a boxed King Cake Mix kit that comes with everything you need to make and decorate your own King Cake for Mardi Gras, even the baby.


The Hurricane is the official drink of New Orleans & the Mardi Gras celebrations. It is a drink made from a mix of fruit juices and rums served "on the rocks." Check out my Hurricane Recipe here.

If you're not into alcohol, you can make them booze-free and still enjoy the iconic drink. You can even get a Pat O'Brien's Hurricane Cocktail Mix to whip them up in a flash without having to track down passion fruit.


There are not many traditional Mardi Gras foods per se excepting the King Cake and pancakes, but for your own Mardi Gras celebration, you can whip up just about any Creole or Cajun dish and it would be perfect. Look for recipes for Red Beans & Rice, Étouffée, Muffalettas, Po' Boys, Jambalaya, or Gumbo. Zataran's makes a ton of boxed mixes and seasonings to get that authentic flavor.

Check out my post for Alaska Cod Po' Boy Sliders with Homemade Remoulade.

You could also boil up a spicy mess of seafoods like Crawfish, Crab, and Shrimp along with small potatoes, corn on the cob, and Cajun Andouille or Boudin sausages and let everyone eat their fill outdoors. Try making "Blackened" fish or chicken dishes, or opt for a sweet breakfast pairing like Beignets (square French donuts, covered in powdered sugar) and Chicory coffee.


Masks have been worn in different cultures for centuries, especially during Carnival celebrations, and Mardi Gras is the largest masked party in North America. Carnival goers wear masks in the streets, and at parties and balls, and float riders are required to wear masks by law. They can be simple or more ornate, modern or in the old traditional Venetian style. There are artists who take pride in creating elaborate masterpieces for wearing or for display only.

You can find a wide array of masks online for your own Mardi Gras party. You can buy a big package of inexpensive masks to have ready for your guests when they arrive, or plan a more elaborate Masquerade party and require your guests to come costumed in masks.

Decor & Music

As for decor, anything goes, but keep it in the traditional purple, gold, and green colors. You can scatter beads and doubloons over tables, display masks, jester's hats, crowns, Fleur de Lis, feathers, and flowers. The sky is the limit! Check out this page on Amazon for some fun ideas.

When it comes to music, Ragtime Jazz & Zydeco genres are great overall choices, but there are also some traditional songs that are always played during Mardi Gras. Check out this list compiled by for the Top 40.

Hopefully, this sheds a bit of light on the Mardi Gras holiday. It's so much more than getting drunk and watching parades! It's actually a religious-based holiday with many old traditions that date back hundreds of years and is celebrated all over Louisiana and various areas near the Mississippi Delta. You can participate in the festivities wherever you are for a fun party or even just a taste of delicious King Cake.


Would you like to celebrate Mardi Gras this year? What are your plans? I love to read your comments!

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