In a departure from the topics I normally write about here in Quicken Loans Mortgage News, I wanted to share some interesting and timely information about something I’ve always been fascinated with – the celebration of Mardi Gras.  Check out a little bit of Mardi Gras history as well as tips on enjoying festivities whether you are in New Orleans or your own home.

History of Mardi Gras

When most people think of Mardi Gras, they think of costumes, beads and the numerous parades and celebrations held in New Orleans.  While you might know that Mardi Gras is celebrated on the day before the beginning of Lent, you might not know that the term “Mardi Gras” literally means “Fat Tuesday,” and is a legal holiday in the state of Louisiana.

Mardi Gras’ roots date back thousands of years ago, when pagans celebrated spring and fertility. When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate these traditions into the new faith, to subtly convert the local pagans to Christianity.  In the days leading up to Lent, they would eat all the meat, cheese, milk and other delicacies that they could consume, in preparation for several weeks of fasting.

Many historians believe that the first American Mardi Gras took place on March 3, 1699, when the French explorers Iberville and Bienville landed just south of what’s known today as New Orleans. French settlements began marking the holiday with street parties and masquerade balls. When the Spanish took control of New Orleans (after the French-Indian War which ended in 1763), they abolished the festivities, and the ban on publicly celebrating Mardi Gras remained until Louisiana became a U.S. state in 1812.

In 1857, a secret society (Mistick Krewe of Comus), organized a Mardi Gras parade with marching bands and floats, laying the foundation for festivities that continue to thrive today.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

This year, Mardi Gras takes place on Tuesday, March 8, 2011, and is expected to draw upwards of 750,000 people to New Orleans from around the country.  For more details about the big party, check out Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras guide.

Aside from the parade and parties, you can take in the sights and sounds of New Orleans.  Free tours of the French Quarter are provided daily by National Park Service rangers.  You can enjoy shopping there as well as on Magazine Street, where galleries and antiques can be found at all price ranges.

Cajun and Creole cuisine are synonymous with New Orleans. During Mardi Gras, you’ll want to savor traditional dishes like jambalaya, gumbo and many others, which can be found whether you are on a budget or prefer something more upscale.  Eateries like Domilise’s Po-Boys and Café Beignet average about $15 per person, while Commander’s Palace is about $65 per person.

For lodging information and deals on bed & breakfasts, hotels, hostels and more, check out the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Mardi Gras at Home

If you can’t make it to New Orleans, you can make a mini Mardi Gras celebration of your own.  It may not be a parade down St. Charles Avenue, but a party with appropriate decorations and food are sure to make your Mardi Gras festive.

Mardi Gras Decorations

The official colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green and gold, chosen by the Mardi Gras Krewe Rex (krewes are societies – or clubs – responsible for planning the carnival), in 1872.   The color purple represents justice, green represents faith and gold stands for power.  Use these colors for everything from tablecloths, napkins and plates to streamers, beads and masks.

Create an allure of mystery at your party by asking all of your guests to don a mask, at least for a little while!  Play creative games to let your guests earn beads, the famous plastic necklaces available in different colors and sizes meant to represent the jewels of royalty.   While you may not have access to doubloons (metal coins that are stamped with each krewe’s emblem and their theme for the year), you can purchase plastic ones at your local party store or online.  Trinkets like candy, stuffed animals, balls and whistles, are thrown from floats, so have a grab bag of fun items available for guests to claim as game prizes.

Mardi Gras Food

You can find recipes online and make a quick trip to the grocery store to find the ingredients you need to bring authentic Cajun and Creole dishes right to your table.   You don’t have to be of TV-chef caliber to capture the seafood and spice of New Orleans.  Sites like Taste of Home feature recipes created by folks across North America, submitted by people just like your Grandma Irene or Aunt Rose.

And of course, dessert is king! Or King Cakes, to be more specific. King Cakes are revered as a special treat during Mardi Gras.  The cake is oval, and a small plastic baby is hidden inside. Finding the section of the cake that contains the baby is intended to symbolize the journey of the Three Kings on their way to find Baby Jesus. Anyone who finds the baby in their piece of cake is said to be blessed with good luck.

Not much of a baker or do you simply want the real King Cake deal?  You can purchase King Cakes online from Haydel Bakery, who is happy to ship it anywhere in the continental United States.

Whether you make the trip to New Orleans or simply want to recreate the celebration at home, Mardi Gras is a time to celebrate history, prepare for the future, and live it up in the present!

As they say in New Orleans, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (Let the good times roll)!

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