Mardi Gras is a carnival celebration that takes place every year before Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and reflection leading up to Easter Sunday. It originated as a Christian tradition in Medieval Europe and was brought over to the French colonies in North America during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Over time, Mardi Gras developed into a vibrant festival full of parades, parties, masks, floats and colorful costumes. A key part of the visual identity of Mardi Gras are the traditional colors of purple, green and gold that are found everywhere during the celebrations.
The Meaning Behind the Colors
The three official colors of Mardi Gras each have their own significance:
- Purple represents justice.
- Green represents faith.
- Gold represents power.
There are a few different theories about the exact origins of how these colors came to represent Mardi Gras. Here are some of the most popular explanations:
Theory 1: Medieval Catholic Tradition
The colors are thought to derive from the traditional colors worn by Catholic priests in the Middle Ages. Purple robes were worn during Lent to symbolize penance and sacrifice. Green vestments were worn during Ordinary Time to represent hope and spiritual growth. Gold vestments were worn during Christmas and Easter to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When the French brought Mardi Gras traditions over to Louisiana, they adapted the medieval liturgical colors to create a palette for the carnival that would reflect Christian values even during a time of indulgence and revelry.
Theory 2: New Orleans Family Ties
According to New Orleans legend, the Mardi Gras colors were first established in 1892 by the Rex Organization, whose members chose the purple, green and gold theme based on their personal ties to Russian nobility.
Purple, green and gold were the heraldic colors of the Romanoff dynasty, the royal house of Russia. Rex’s founders reportedly chose these colors to honor a visit to New Orleans by the Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia during the 1872 Carnival season.
Theory 3: Sanitation and Sewage System
A more fanciful tale claims that the colors were inspired by the poetry of Carnival in 19th century New Orleans:
“Purple stands for justice, Gold for power, Green for faith. This is how our city stands through storms and strife!”
In reality, the colors were said to represent the state of the sanitation and sewage system at the time:
- Purple for justice – the “just-us” who can’t afford indoor plumbing
- Gold for power – the power of the smell from outdoor toilets
- Green for faith – holding your nose and having faith that New Orleans will build a sewer system
While this is an amusing legend, historians tend to agree that the Rex Organization choosing the Romanoff colors is the more likely explanation behind the origin of the official Mardi Gras hues.
Uses and Traditions
Today, purple, green and gold are proudly displayed everywhere during Mardi Gras season – these colors unify the various parades, balls and festivals leading up to Fat Tuesday. Here are some of the ways they are incorporated:
Costumes and Attire
The colors appear prominently on many types of costumes, including:
- Ball gowns
- Suits and ties
- Face paint
It is also traditional to dress fully in purple, green or gold on Mardi Gras Day.
All floats in parades will be decorated using some combination of purple, green and gold:
- Fabric and fringe
Even parade floats without an obvious theme will usually feature the signature colors.
Many of the beads, coins, cups and other “throws” that are tossed from the floats will incorporate purple, green and gold:
- Beads in single or multiple colors
- Coins with color designs
- Small cups in the corresponding hues
- Plush characters dressed in purple, green and gold
catching throws is a big part of the fun for Mardi Gras parade spectators, so these color-coordinated keepsakes help spread the tradition.
No Mardi Gras celebration would be complete without a king cake! While the cinnamon dough is usually decorated with gold, purple and green sugar:
- Colored sugars
Inside every king cake is a small plastic baby figurine, meant to symbolize baby Jesus. Whoever gets the slice with the baby is dubbed the king or queen of the festival.
Both residents and businesses will decorate their homes and storefronts using the symbolic colors:
- Door wreaths
Travelers flying into New Orleans during Carnival season are greeted at the airport by purple, green and gold terminal decor as well.
Unofficial Fourth Color
While purple, green and gold are the established Mardi Gras colors, some people argue there should be a fourth official color: white. Proponents say white represents the diversity of race and nationality in New Orleans.
While white beads, face paint and decorations can be seen at modern-day Mardi Gras celebrations, for now the classic triad remains in place as the symbolic heart of the event.
The colorful tradition of Mardi Gras has spread far beyond the festivities in New Orleans and wider Louisiana. Mardi Gras is now celebrated in cities across the United States and around the world – and purple, green and gold go along for the ride.
Anywhere Mardi Gras is observed, the three colors dominate proceedings. No matter the location, you can spot these colorful hues on costumes, beads, masks, cakes and street decorations during Carnival season.
Some examples of major international cities that now celebrate Mardi Gras with purple, green and gold include:
- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
- Barranquilla, Colombia
- Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago
- Mobile, Alabama
- Galveston, Texas
Wherever Mardi Gras traveled over the years and centuries, the symbolic colors followed along. Their ability to transcend location is a testament to how integral purple, green and gold are to Carnival celebrations.
Simplifying Mardi Gras
Examining the history and the meaning behind the colors makes it clear how they are significant for Mardi Gras:
- Provide symbolic meaning
- Unify diverse events
- Represent core values
- Reinforce tradition and ritual
Yet it is also their simplicity that makes them so powerful. With just three colors, Mardi Gras has an instant visual identity recognizable the world over.
In an event with complex and varied traditions, the colors give both participants and spectators an easy common ground. They are a simple hook everyone can understand and appreciate.
While the elaborate floats, wild costumes and rich histories make Mardi Gras special, the triad of purple, green and gold define its look on a basic level. This allows the celebration to maintain its magical allure year after year.
Mardi Gras colors can be traced back centuries to medieval church services, noble families, sanitation issues and more. But their significance lies in the present-day meaning attached to justice, faith and power.
The hues unify the experience, no matter the specific parade or location. In an increasingly complex world, their simplicity allows everyone to share in the festive spirit.
So when Carnival season arrives, adorn yourself in purple, green and gold. It is more than just a costume – it is taking part in a colorful tradition that transcends time and place.