Even though the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans has been going strong for several weeks, it is just now building for the climax this week that is Fat Tuesday. With hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city, the party has turned into one of the biggest in the world.
“Mardi Gras” is actually a French word that means “fat Tuesday,” which refers to the practice of gorging and indulging in rich, fatty foods before beginning the fasting season of Lent on the next day, Ash Wednesday. It’s also called Shrove Tuesday in some places, which comes from the word shrive, which means “to confess.”
Traditionally accepted as a Christian tradition, Mardi Gras actually began as a pagan fertility celebration thousands of years ago. When Rome accepted Christianity, church leaders decided to adopt the traditional Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia into the church calendar as a prelude to the 40 days of fasting that lead up to Easter. The first Mardi Gras in the United States is thought to have taken place in 1699 in Louisiana, just south of what would become New Orleans. The ritual was celebrated for several decades until the debauchery was banned when the Spanish took control of the city. Bans were lifted when Louisiana became a U.S. state in 1812, and Mardi Gras lives on.
Hundreds of thousands visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras and the buildup to the Fat Tuesday celebration each year, and estimates of the economic impact go as high as $500 million in a given year. Deanna Broussard, a Senior Executive Host at Harrah’s New Orleans, says her hotel is packed from day one during the season and knows how good Mardi Gras is for the hotel industry. She admitted that she has experienced 50 of them, and for those who have never been to Mardi Gras, it’s an event that should not be missed. “It should be on everyone’s bucket list,” she says, adding that until you see it “you are never going to imagine what it is like.” Broussard also added that the big crowds do present some unique challenges: “When the parades are going on, the streets are blocked off. Sometimes people have a hard time getting to our front door.”
The Mardi Gras season is marked by parades every day through the French Quarter and other areas in and around New Orleans, as well as the expected food and drink for which the region is famous. It all ends, though, the minute the calendar says that Fat Tuesday is over. At midnight on the morning of Ash Wednesday, as Broussard puts it “A line of New Orleans police officers on horseback start at one end of the French Quarter and move through the area announcing that the party is over and everyone must clear the streets. The season of fasting and repentance has begun.” Those who readied for Fat Tuesday now see Mardi Gras end and the cleanup begin. The line of police officers is immediately followed by street washers, and New Orleans returns to as close to normal as it can get.
By Chuck Podhaisky