5 Things You Should Know About Mardi Gras

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Chris Graythen/Stringer/Getty Images / Chris Graythen/Stringer/Getty Images

The time before the start of Lent goes by many names, but the most popular one might be Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras celebrations made famous in New Orleans, Louisiana, are known for their food, parades, and general debauchery. Before slicing into a king cake or gathering your plastic beads, read these fascinating facts about Mardi Gras.

1. What is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras celebrates the day before Ash Wednesday—a.k.a. the start of the Lenten season. Lent is a time for fasting and sacrifice in Christianity, so Mardi Gras is viewed as the final opportunity to indulge in earthly pleasures. The holiday name is French for "Fat Tuesday"—a reference to the fatty foods eaten during the holiday. It's also known as Shrove Tuesday, which comes from the word shrive, meaning "to confess one's sins," and Fastnacht Day, from the German word for donut. Mardi Gras celebrations are called carnival or carnivàle in many parts of the world.

2. How long does Mardi Gras last?

Mardi Gras lasts more than one day in Louisiana. Officially, Mardi Gras season begins on January 6, which is the Feast of the Epiphany, or the end of the Christmas season, in Christianity. You won't find too many people tossing beads in the streets in late January, however. Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans tend to start about two weeks before Lent, with most of the celebrations happening the weekend leading up Ash Wednesday and on Fat Tuesday.

3. Why do people throw beads during Mardi Gras?

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The practice of handing out trinkets during Mardi Gras can be traced back to the 19th century. In the 1870s or 1880s, Louisiana party organizers known as krewes began handing out shiny tokens to carnival-goers. Beads have represented health and prosperity for much of human history. The first Mardi Gras beads—made of glass instead of cheap plastic—became highly-coveted items among revelers.

4. What is King Cake? And what does it have to do with Mardi Gras?

King cake is a Mardi Gras confection that comes with a baby figurine baked inside. Whoever finds the baby is believed to be blessed with luck and prosperity and made "king" for the day. Early versions of the cake baked for Pagan Saturnalia celebrations contained a hidden fava bean instead of a plastic doll.

5. Where are the Mardi Gras floats made?

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Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans are famous for their elaborate floats. The Big Easy's own Kern Studios is responsible for building these stunning displays. If you visit New Orleans outside of Mardi Gras season, you can visit Mardi Gras World at Kern's warehouse to see floats from past parades and see sculptures being constructed for upcoming celebrations.