Mardi Gras is a 300-year-old holiday, wrapped in rich tradition and celebration. It started in 1699 in the location of present-day New Orleans, after French settlers held a small festivity deemed Point du Mardi Gras. This unique holiday has gained quite the following in the United States over the last 100 years and is often synonymous with vibrant parties and spectacular floats. Its origin, though, has a strong religious association. Mardi Gras roughly translates to “Fat Tuesday,” a celebration to overindulge before Ash Wednesday (or the first day of Lent), which is the following day.
To celebrate the overindulgence, numerous creole dishes are made and shared with family and friends. One of these dishes is King Cake, a delectable dessert made of sweet brioche dough, drizzled with a thick icing glaze and adorned with yellow, purple and green sprinkles. A plastic baby is hidden in the cake, representing luck and prosperity. Whoever gets the slice containing the baby will essentially be a “king” for the day. But the person will also be responsible for the task of hosting next year’s Mardi Gras party or merely buying next year’s cake.
In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is deeply rooted in the city’s culture. It is not merely a celebration of excess but an opportunity to share great food and age-old traditions with friends and family. Schools in New Orleans parish allocate a week-long holiday for students to celebrate the holiday with loved ones. Children often participate in the festivities as spectators, catching beads and stuffed animals.
A few lucky students participate in the parades with their school marching band. They provide an upbeat musical interlude between parade floats and are essentially the soul and rhythm of the parade. This week-long celebration is beloved by the young and old, and every year, millions of tourists flock to the city to join in on this unique holiday.
I had the opportunity to attend university in New Orleans. My mother’s family has lived in the city for several generations, and every year, we come together to celebrate. The day before the festivities, we all clamber into my grandmother’s kitchen to create family favorites such as gumbo, alligator jambalaya, smothered turkey necks and shrimp etouffee. On Fat Tuesday, we wake at 5 a.m. and stuff my uncle’s pick-up truck with food, barbecue grills, coolers and folding chairs. We arrive at my mother’s house on Jackson Avenue, which is on the main route of the well-known Zulu parade.
As the sun rises, neighbors and friends flow in and out of the house, enjoying food and conversation. As the parade starts, jubilation and wine cascade throughout the streets. Beads stream from elaborate floats into the hands of the crowds below, as well as from the large magnolias that loom overhead. When the parade ends, we collect abandoned beads and litter from the street. Crowds linger for hours dancing and laughing under the dim street lights before saying final goodbyes.
The meaning of Mardi Gras varies by person, but to me, it represents a time to reconnect with friends and family.
~Nia Beasley, Texas A&M ’20