Today is Mardi Gras - here's where and why the festival is celebrated

Mardi Gras parades typically feature masked and costumed participants (Getty Images)Mardi Gras parades typically feature masked and costumed participants (Getty Images)
Mardi Gras parades typically feature masked and costumed participants (Getty Images)

Some Britons might think they are being excessive for indulging in an extra pancake this Shrove Tuesday, but across the Atlantic Ocean Mardi Gras celebrations give a whole new meaning to excess.

A Saturnalian celebration synonymous with gluttony, colour and nudity, Mardi Gras will not be its usual colourful self in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Celebrations in New Orleans have been scaled back this year, but some Americans are still getting into the spirit of the Mardi Gras carnival, while the auspicious date is also being recognised in the likes of France, Italy and Brazil.

Here’s what you need to know about the carnival celebration.

What is the meaning of Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras translates from French to English as Fat Tuesday and refers to the culmination of the Christian feasts of the Epiphany prior to the sombre observation of Ash Wednesday.

The term Fat Tuesday reflects on the tradition of indulging in rich and fatty foods before the fasting season of Lent. Mardi Gras celebrations typically take the form of a carnival.

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It is thought that the Christian festival may be linked to the Roman celebrations of spring and fertility.

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The length of the season varies by country with some starting celebrations on the Twelfth Night.

When is Mardi Gras?

In 2021 Mardi Gras takes place on February 16, the final Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday takes place six weeks before Easter.

How is Mardi Gras celebrated in New Orleans?

The festival celebrations vary by region with an emphasis on excess.

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Though they have their origins in medieval Europe in recent years the celebrations have become synonymous with the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Celebrations in New Orleans run for two weeks in the lead up to Ash Wednesday with colourful parades and masquerade balls held in the final week.

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Parades are made up of floats with float riders tossing throws – colourful plastic beads, coins, toys and other colourful items – into crowds. According to Mardi Gras New Orleans “the throwing of trinkets to the crowds was started in the early 1870s by the Twelfth Night Revelers, and is a time-honored expectation for young and old alike.”

Mardi Gras attendees typically dress up in masks and costumes, emblazoned with the traditional colours of purple, green and gold.

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As there is no need to purchase a ticket to attend the Mardi Gras the carnival is known by some as "The Greatest Free Show on Earth".

The first Mardi Gras parade was held in New Orleans on Feb. 24, 1857 by the Krewe of Comus, a secret society who popularised a more formal and open recognition of the festival.

The festival has been scaled back this year due to Covid-19 with Carnival parades replaced by virtual parades, a stationary parade, and houses decorated like floats.