For most, Fat Tuesday conjures images of beads, beer, and the Big Easy, but the history of Mardi Gras in New Orleans begins in Roman Catholic Europe.
Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is a Christian holiday cum pop culture phenomenon that dates back thousands of years to pagan spring and fertility rites. Also known as Carnival, it is celebrated in several nations across the globe -- predominantly those with large Roman Catholic populations -- on the day before the religious season of lent.
When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate some pagan traditions like the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia into the new faith - a much easier task than abolishing them outright. As a result, the debauchery and excess of Carnival season became a prelude to the 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
Mardi Gras spread from Rome across Europe where it then crossed the oceans to the colonies of the New World.
In France, the day before Ash Wednesday came to be known as Fat Tuesday because of the tradition of a pre-Lent feast of eggs, milk, cheese, and meat. Similarly, the world Carnival is thought to come from the Medieval Latin word carnelevarium, meaning to take away or remove meat.
The Early Days of Mardi Gras in the U.S.
Historians believe the first American Mardi Gras occurred on March 3, 1699 when French explorers Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville and Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville landed in what is now Louisiana. The relatively small festivities were held just south of the present day Mardi Gras capital, New Orleans. In the ensuing decades, New Orleans and other French settlements took to marking the holiday with masked balls, lavish dinners, and wild street parties.
Spaniards temporarily squelched the party during their rule, but the custom was revived when Louisiana became a U.S. state in 1812. The first parade is thought to have occurred on Fat Tuesday in 1827 with a group of students emulating what they saw while visiting Paris. The first official parade took place ten years later and the ritual has continued to this day.
New Orleans' krewe tradition began with the Mistick Krewe of Comus, a secret society of New Orleans businessmen that organized a torch-lit procession with floats and bands in 1857. As years passed, Mardi Gras gained other lasting customs like the throwing of beads, wearing of masks, decorating of floats, and eating of King Cake.
Though Louisiana remains the only state in which Mardi Gras is a legal holiday, nearby Alabama and Mississippi acquired their own Mardi Gras traditions and Fat Tuesday celebrations are now held across the nation.
New Orleans Mardi Gras 2012
In the 12 days leading up to Fat Tuesday about one million people take to the streets of New Orleans, bringing about $300 million in direct and indirect economic impact for the Big Easy, according to a study released last year.
Some of that comes from obvious things like the 37,000 sold out hotel rooms, souvenirs, food and beverage. But a lot of the money actually comes from New Orleans residents themselves.
You have the whole interior market for those of us that are here, Jennifer Day-Sully, Director of Communications for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, told IBTimes. You have to pay the seamstresses to make the costumes, the jewelers to create the accessories, the float makers, the invitation makers ... There's a whole side of expenditures that the tourist might not necessarily think about.
The vast majority of what you see on display during Mardi Gras parades is made in New Orleans by the people of New Orleans.
In the weeks leading up to the event, the whole town is buzzing.
We're all working on costumes, going to balls and eating king cake, Day-Sully said. And then it's time to parade.
Mardi Gras is known as a laissez-faire event, but it doesn't have to be adults only.
That's something a lot of people don't understand, Day-Sully said. It's not all 'Girls Gone Wild.' The nudity is limited to streets in the French Quarter.
Mardi Gras today is really about slowing down, being with family, and watching thousands of dancers, musicians, and revelers take over the city.
There are over 60 krewes participating in Mardi Gras this year and countless more dance troupes. There are also dozens of grass roots groups that dress up and march together.
The revelry continues until midnight Tuesday when it all comes to an end. The police clear the streets and the sanitation crew comes out like a fine oiled machine to pick up tons of purple, green, and gold debris.
New Orleans wakes up the next day to honor Ash Wednesday, and thus the cycle of sin and redemption continues.