What does ‛mardi gras’ mean?

What Does ‛Mardi Gras’ Mean?Skip Bolen/Getty Images

It’s the time of the year again, Mardi Gras. The celebration that starts the Lenten season is know around the world, but is most famous in Louisiana. The question, then, is why? For many (or at the very least sex-driven college-aged males), Mardi Gras is a chance to hop a flight to New Orleans, drink copious Hurricanes or three-for-one beers, and throw beads at people in an attempt to see some public nudity.

Would you be shocked to find out that that isn’t the real reason for Mardi Gras? Amazing, right? Take a breath. We know that might’ve rocked your world, but it’ll be okay.

If you peel the layers of the onion that is Mardi Gras back, you’ll find a Catholic holiday rich in history and tradition that spans the globe. While many of us here in the US may associate it with New Orleans, king cakes, and Krewes, there’s actually a lot more to it. Read on to find out more!

What Mardi Gras Means

Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” and refers to the ritualistic eating of generally unhealthy foods (hello, king cake) and meat before the traditional forty days of fasting that accompany the season of Lent in the Catholic faith begins.

The First Mardi Gras Celebrations

The celebration of Mardi Gras—also known as Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day, depending on where you are—dates back to Medieval times in Europe. Feasting on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lenten season of fasting, were common in Italy and France, and these traditions eventually made their way to the New World with the French.

What Does ‛Mardi Gras’ Mean?laartist/Getty Images

(Note: We’ll be focusing on the Christian holiday of Mardi Gras, but before the Christians got hold of the celebrations, pagans across the world celebrated various spring and fertility rites that included celebrations, feasting, and debauchery of all sorts. These types of celebrations can be seen in various Carnival festivities around the world.)

The First Mardi Gras in the U.S

In 1699, an explorer—Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville—landed about sixty miles south of the place that would become New Orleans (the city itself would be established nineteen years later by Bienville). Landing on the eve of Mardi Gras, he named the place “Pointe du Mardi Gras” as a means of honoring the holiday.  This is seen as the first celebration of the holiday in the US.

Evolution of the Mardi Gras Holiday

Mardi Gras

Holiday on the day before Ash Wednesday
This article is about the carnival holiday. For other uses, see Mardi Gras (disambiguation).

Mardi GrasCelebrations in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.Also calledFat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Pancake TuesdayTypeChristian, CulturalSignificanceCelebration period before fasting season of LentCelebrationsParades, partiesDateDay before Ash Wednesday, 47 days before Easter2019 dateMarch 52020 dateFebruary 252021 dateFebruary 162022 dateMarch 1FrequencyAnnualRelated toShrove Tuesday, Carnival, Shrove Monday, Shrovetide, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Užgavėnės, Maslenitsa,

Mardi Gras (/ˈmɑːrdi ˌɡrɑː/), or Fat Tuesday, refers to events of the Carnival celebration, beginning on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday, which is known as Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, reflecting the practice of the last night of eating rich, fatty foods before the ritual Lenten sacrifices and fasting of the Lenten season.

Related popular practices are associated with Shrovetide celebrations before the fasting and religious obligations associated with the penitential season of Lent. In countries such as the United Kingdom, Mardi Gras is also known as Shrove Tuesday, which is derived from the word shrive, meaning “to administer the sacrament of confession to; to absolve”.[1]

History

133–31 BC

Some think Mardi Gras may be linked[2] with the ancient Roman pagan celebrations of spring and fertility such as Saturnalia, which dates back to 133–31 BC. This celebration honored the god of agriculture, Saturn.

It was observed in mid-December, before the sowing of winter crops. It was a week-long festival when work and business came to a halt. Schools and courts of law closed, and the normal social patterns were suspended.

On the Julian calendar, which the Romans used at the time, the winter solstice fell on December 25. Hence, the celebration gradually became associated with Christmas.

Traditions

The festival season varies from city to city, as some traditions, such as the one in New Orleans, Louisiana, consider Mardi Gras to stretch the entire period from Twelfth Night (the last night of Christmas which begins Epiphany) to Ash Wednesday.[3][4] Others treat the final three-day period before Ash Wednesday as the Mardi Gras.

[5] In Mobile, Alabama, Mardi Gras–associated social events begin in November, followed by mystic society balls on Thanksgiving,[3][6] then New Year's Eve, followed by parades and balls in January and February, celebrating up to midnight before Ash Wednesday. In earlier times, parades were held on New Year's Day.

[3] Carnival is an important celebration in Anglican and Catholic European nations.[1]

Mardi Gras in Dakar, Senegal
Mardi Gras in Marseille, France
Mardi Gras in Binche, Belgium

Czech Republic

In the Czech Republic it is a folk tradition to celebrate Mardi Gras, which is called Masopust (meat-fast i.e. beginning of fast there). There are celebration in many places including Prague[7] but the tradition also prevails in the villages such as Staré Hamry, whose the door-to-door processions there made it to the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage List.[8]

Germany

Main articles: Karneval, Fasching and Fastnacht

The celebration on the same day in Germany knows many different terms, such as Schmutziger Donnerstag or Fetter Donnerstag (Fat Thursday), Unsinniger Donnerstag, Weiberfastnacht, Greesentag and others, and are often only one part of the whole carnival events during one or even two weeks before Ash Wednesday be called Karneval, Fasching, or Fastnacht among others, depending on the region. In standard German, schmutzig means “dirty”, but in the Alemannic dialects schmotzig means “lard” (Schmalz), or “fat”;[9] “Greasy Thursday”, as remaining winter stores of lard and butter used to be consumed at that time, before the fasting began. Fastnacht means “Eve of the Fast”, but all three terms cover the whole carnival season. The traditional start of the carnival season is on 11 November at 11:11 am (11/11 11:11).

Italy

In Italy Mardi Gras is called Martedì Grasso (Fat Tuesday). It's the main day of Carnival along with the Thursday before, called Giovedí Grasso (Fat Thursday), which ratifies the start of the celebrations.

The most famous Carnivals in Italy are in Venice, Viareggio and Ivrea. Ivrea has the characteristic “Battle of Oranges” that finds its roots in medieval times. The Italian version of the festival is spelled Carnevale.

[10]

Sweden

In Sweden the celebration is called Fettisdagen, when you eat fastlagsbulle, more commonly called Semla. The name comes from the words “fett” (fat) and “tisdag” (Tuesday). Originally, this was the only day one should eat fastlagsbullar.[11]

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United States

See also: Mardi Gras in the United States, Mardi Gras in Mobile, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans

While not observed nationally throughout the United States, a number of traditionally ethnic French cities and regions in the country have notable celebrations.

Mardi Gras arrived in North America as a French Catholic tradition with the Le Moyne brothers,[12] Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, in the late 17th century, when King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France's claim on the territory of Louisiane, which included what are now the U.S.

states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and part of eastern Texas.[12]

The expedition, led by Iberville, entered the mouth of the Mississippi River on the evening of 2 March 1699 (new style), Lundi Gras. They did not yet know it was the river explored and claimed for France by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1683.

The party proceeded upstream to a place on the east bank about 60 miles downriver from where New Orleans is today, and made camp. This was on 3 March 1699, Mardi Gras, so in honour of this holiday, Iberville named the spot Point du Mardi Gras (French: “Mardi Gras Point”) and called the nearby tributary Bayou Mardi Gras.

[13] Bienville went on to found the settlement of Mobile, Alabama in 1702 as the first capital of French Louisiana.[14] In 1703 French settlers in Mobile established the first organised Mardi Gras celebration tradition in what was to become the United States.

[12][15][16][17] The first informal mystic society, or krewe, was formed in Mobile in 1711, the Boeuf Gras Society.[15] By 1720, Biloxi had been made capital of Louisiana. The French Mardi Gras customs had accompanied the colonists who settled there.[12]

Knights of Revelry parade down Royal Street in Mobile during the 2010 Mardi Gras season.

In 1723, the capital of Louisiana was moved to New Orleans, founded in 1718.[14] The first Mardi Gras parade held in New Orleans is recorded to have taken place in 1837.

The tradition in New Orleans expanded to the point that it became synonymous with the city in popular perception, and embraced by residents of New Orleans beyond those of French or Catholic heritage. Mardi Gras celebrations are part of the basis of the slogan Laissez les bons temps rouler (“Let the good times roll”).

[12][failed verification] On Mardi Gras Day, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the last parades of the season wrap up and the celebrations come to a close with the Meeting of the Courts (known locally as the Rex Ball).

Other cities along the Gulf Coast with early French colonial heritage, from Pensacola, Florida; Galveston, Texas; to Lake Charles and Lafayette, Louisiana; and north to Natchez, Mississippi and Alexandria, Louisiana, have active Mardi Gras celebrations.

Galveston's first recorded Mardi Gras celebration, in 1867, included a masked ball at Turner Hall (Sealy at 21st St.) and a theatrical performance from Shakespeare's “King Henry IV” featuring Alvan Reed (a justice of the peace weighing in at 350 pounds!) as Falstaff.

The first year that Mardi Gras was celebrated on a grand scale in Galveston was 1871 with the emergence of two rival Mardi Gras societies, or “Krewes” called the Knights of Momus (known only by the initials “K.O.M.

“) and the Knights of Myth, both of which devised night parades, masked balls, exquisite costumes and elaborate invitations. The Knights of Momus, led by some prominent Galvestonians, decorated horse-drawn wagons for a torch lit night parade.

Boasting such themes as “The Crusades,” “Peter the Great,” and “Ancient France,” the procession through downtown Galveston culminated at Turner Hall with a presentation of tableaux and a grand gala.

In the rural Acadiana area, many Cajuns celebrate with the Courir de Mardi Gras, a tradition that dates to medieval celebrations in France.[18]

St. Louis, Missouri, founded in 1764 by French fur traders, claims to host the second largest Mardi Gras celebration in the United States.[19] The celebration is held in the historic French neighborhood, Soulard, and attracts hundreds of thousands of people from around the country.

[20] Although founded in the 1760s, the St. Louis Mardi Gras festivities only date to the 1980s.[21] The city's celebration begins with “12th night,” held on Epiphany, and ends on Fat Tuesday.

The season is peppered with various parades celebrating the city's rich French Catholic heritage.[22]

Costumes

What Does ‛Mardi Gras’ Mean?

It’s the end of February, which means Mardi Gras is almost here! When we think of Mardi Gras, we picture parties, parades, and beads. But did you ever wonder what “Mardi Gras” means?

Mardi Gras Kicks Off Lent

The first thing to know about Mardi Gras is that it kicks off the Christian season of Lent. That’s the time when people prepare for Easter, the holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Christ.

In Western churches, Lent begins six-and-a-half weeks before Easter on what’s known as Ash Wednesday. On this solemn day, Christians are asked to reflect on their mortality and their need to reconcile with god.

They are also asked to begin fasting — and to fast for the next 40 days.

Nowadays, that might mean  giving up wine or candy. 

But in the early days of the church, fasting was pretty hard core. You could only eat one meal a day, and that had to be in the evening. You couldn’t eat eggs, butter, meat, or fish. In some places, you couldn’t have oil, wine, or any other type of dairy.

Knowing this period of fasting was coming up, people naturally tried to use up any of these foods they had on hand before Lent began. Especially because there wasn’t refrigeration back then.

That leads us back to Mardi Gras.

'Mardi Gras' Means 'Fat Tuesday'

In French, “Mardi Gras” means “Fat Tuesday.” In other words, it’s the day when people try to literally use up all the fats in their house before Ash Wednesday begins. 

If you’re a regular listener or reader, you will remember that just a couple of weeks ago we talked about the origin of the names of the days of the week, and in Roman times, Tuesday was “dies Martis,” with directly led to the French and Spanish words we use for Tuesday today.

Mardi Gras Started as a Way to Get Rid of Food Before the Time of Fasting

Over time, this practical act turned into a celebration. You can see how. If you had to get rid of all the ice cream, frozen pizzas, and potato chips in your house, you’d probably throw a party too.

And so the Mardi Gras carnival was born, the feasts and festivities leading up to Lent. In fact, the word “carnival” itself reflects this tradition. It comes from the Latin “carnem levāre” (or the Italian “carne levare”). Both refer to the putting away or removal of flesh. 

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By the way, you probably already know that the word “carne” means meat. Just think of carne asada, that yummy staple of Mexican cuisine. “Asada” means “roasted” or “grilled.” So carne asada means “grilled meat.”

Mardi Gras History | Mardi Gras New Orleans

The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced to medieval Europe, passing through Rome and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries to the French House of the Bourbons. From here, the traditional revelry of “Boeuf Gras,” or fatted calf, followed France to her colonies.

On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans, and named it “Pointe du Mardi Gras” when his men realized it was the eve of the festive holiday. Bienville also established “Fort Louis de la Louisiane” (which is now Mobile) in 1702. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated America's very first Mardi Gras.

In 1704, Mobile established a secret society (Masque de la Mobile), similar to those that form our current Mardi Gras krewes. It lasted until 1709.

In 1710, the “Boeuf Gras Society” was formed and paraded from 1711 through 1861. The procession was held with a huge bull's head pushed along on wheels by 16 men.

Later, Rex would parade with an actual bull, draped in white and signaling the coming Lenten meat fast. This occurred on Fat Tuesday.

New Orleans was established in 1718 by Bienville. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans, but not with the parades we know today. In the early 1740s, Louisiana's governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls, which became the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today.

The earliest reference to Mardi Gras “Carnival” appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body. That year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans.

By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches, or “flambeaux,” lit the way for the krewe's members and lent each event an exciting air of romance and festivity.

In 1856, six young Mobile natives formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus, invoking John Milton's hero Comus to represent their organization. Comus brought magic and mystery to New Orleans with dazzling floats (known as tableaux cars) and masked balls.

Krewe members remained anonymous.

In 1870, Mardi Gras' second Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, was formed. This is also the first recorded account of Mardi Gras “throws.”

Newspapers began to announce Mardi Gras events in advance, and they even printed “Carnival Edition” lithographs of parades' fantastic float designs (after they rolled, of course – themes and floats were always carefully guarded before the procession).

At first, these reproductions were small, and details could not be clearly seen.

But beginning in 1886 with Proteus' parade “Visions of Other Worlds,” these chromolithographs could be produced in full, saturated color, doing justice to the float and costume designs of Carlotta Bonnecase, Charles Briton and B.A. Wikstrom.

Each of these designers' work was brought to life by talented Parisian paper-mache' artist Georges Soulie', who for 40 years was responsible for creating all of Carnival's floats and processional outfits.

1872 was the year that a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival, Rex, to preside over the first daytime parade.

To honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, the businessmen introduced Romanoff's family colors of purple, green and gold as Carnival's official colors. Purple stands for justice; gold for power; and green for faith.

This was also the Mardi Gras season that Carnival's improbable anthem, “If Ever I Cease to Love,” was cemented, due in part to the Duke's fondness for the tune.

The following year, floats began to be constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France, culminating with Comus' magnificent “The Missing Links to Darwin's Origin of Species,” in which exotic paper-mache' animal costumes served as the basis for Comus to mock both Darwin's theory and local officials, including Governor Henry Warmoth. In 1875, Governor Warmoth signed the “Mardi Gras Act,” making Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana, which it still is.

10 Mardi Gras Traditions to Know in 2020 – The History Of Mardi Gras

Getty

Once a year New Orleans descends into a flurry of chaos, crowds, and colorful masks as the city celebrates Mardi Gras– the last day of the Carnival celebration. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday as it's also known, is the Christian feasting period before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

But in the Big Easy the day of indulgence takes on a whole new meaning as galas, parades, and parties take over the city– it's even a Louisiana state holiday.

This year the festivities will take place on March 5th, so whether you celebrate by catching beads on Bourbon or digging into a King Cake– here's everything you need to know about the unique history and culture of Mardi Gras.

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1 Mardi Gras—the French term for 'Fat Tuesday'—lasts from January 6 until February 13.

The annual Carnival always kicks off 12 days after Christmas (January 6th) and continues until Fat Tuesday (the evening before Ash Wednesday.) It's a period filled with celebrations, parades, balls, and parties, all of which culminate on Tuesday, March 5.

2 The first North American Mardi Gras was celebrated in Alabama—not Louisiana.

French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville arrived in what is now modern day Mobile, Alabama on Fat Tuesday, 1699. He named the location Point du Mardi Gras and threw a little party.

In the years that followed, French travelers would come to the spot explicitly for Fat Tuesday celebrations.

To this day, Mobile, Alabama claims to hold the oldest Mardi Gras celebrations in the country.

3 The traditional colors are purple, green, and gold.

It is rumored that when Grand Duke Alexis visited in 1872, his welcoming committee handed out purple, green, and gold beads to the party-goers that year, as they were the colors of his home. The trio of shades came to symbolize the festivities and were later given meanings: purple for justice, gold for power, and green for faith.

4 The King Cake, a traditional dessert, has biblical roots.

The story of these glazed and frosted pastries dates back to the Medieval Times, when French, Belgian, and Spanish cultures commemorated the 12th day of Christmas with gifts and sweets. Biblically, the kings during this time would have been visiting the newborn baby Jesus, bringing gifts and sweets of their own.

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That's where the “king” in king cake comes from. Today, the cakes are fried and doughy, glazed and frosted, typically in the Mardi Gras colors. They're usually circular and braided, to resemble a King's crown.

Most cakes are baked with a tiny baby figurine on the inside, and whomever finds the toy, as tradition holds, must host the next big party.

5 Mardi Gras became the celebration we know today because of a secret society.

Since its first impromptu celebrations in the early 1700's, Mardi Gras had been regularly cancelled or banned for its destructive drunken parties—that is until 1837, when a secret society known as the Mistik Krewe of Comus aimed to elevate the chaotic experience, replacing the debauchery with lavish balls and parades. Eventually, the “Fat Tuesday” celebrations of New Orleans garnered much support and enthusiasm, later establishing itself as the Mardi Gras capital of the country.

6 There are more than 70 secret societies (or “Krewes”) involved in today's Mardi Gras festivities.

Each Krewe builds a float to represent their specific theme on parade days, and features a celebrity guest to regal their audience. One of the more unusual groups is the Krewe of Chewbacchus—a society that combines the lovable Star Wars Character with the Greek God of wine.

7 Russian royalty has attended the New Orleans festivities.

8 Each year, one ruler is anointed as “The King of Carnival.”

The king is selected by the Krewe of Rex, founded in 1872 to honor Grand Duke Alexis Romanov Alexandrovich's arrival to New Orleans. The society has chosen a person of distinction every year since, and today, the mayor presents the King of Rex with a symbolic key to the city.

9 It is illegal to wear masks in New Orleans except on Mardi Gras.

The masquerade is an enduring tradition of the Mardi Gras festivities as an opportunity for people to shed their inhibitions and fully imbibe in the party-spirit. A New Orleans city ordinance prohibits the wearing of masks on any other day, and on Mardi Gras masks must be removed by 6:00 p.m.

10 Each Krewe hurls party favors into the crowds.

What is Mardi Gras, most famous in New Orleans, and how is it celebrated?

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Tens of thousands of revelers descended on New Orleans streets for parades and rowdy fun as Mardi Gras got underway. (Feb. 13)

Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” also called Shrove Tuesday. It is the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Christian Lent season leading up to Easter. During Lent, many Christians fast, and the name Fat Tuesday refers to the last day of eating richer foods before the leaner days of Lent begin. This year it is celebrated on Feb. 13.

Where is it celebrated?

In America, celebrations for Mardi Gras are most famous in New Orleans, where it is the conclusion of weeks of parades that begin in January. Other Southern cities, especially with French heritage, such as Mobile, Ala., also mark Mardi Gras.

The day is the culmination of the Carnival season, which begins on or after the Christian Feast of the Epiphany in January.

Carnival season also is celebrated in many Catholic-majority countries, most well-known in Brazil, where elaborate parades fill the streets.

What is its history in the United States?

According to the official Mardi Gras New Orleans website, the first U.S. Mardi Gras occurred in Mobile in 1703 with a secret society, the Masque de Mobile, formed to organize the celebrations.

This society is similar to the “krewes” in New Orleans who sponsor the elaborate floats used in the parades before and during Mardi Gras.

The celebration arrived in New Orleans soon after its founding in 1718.

About a century later, according to Mardi Gras New Orleans, street parades had become established in the city and many krewes had formed, their members remaining anonymous and their faces hidden by masks.

In 1872, a “King of Carnival,” Rex, was introduced to preside over the parades. The tradition of float riders throwing trinkets to the crowds also began in the 1870s.

Typical “throws” include beads, cups, coins and stuffed animals.

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Who organizes and pays for Mardi Gras?

Krewes are private, non-profit organizations whose members get together year-round to plan their parade's theme, costumes and throws, according to Mardi Gras New Orleans.

They are individually funded by members through dues, sales of krewe-related merchandise  and fundraising, including corporate sponsorships.

The city of New Orleans is not involved in coordinating Mardi Gras parades; its only involvement is to issue parade permits.

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Mardi Gras History | Origins & Meaning of Colors

Mardi Gras was brought to Louisiana by early French settlers. The first record of the holiday was in Louisiana in 1699. The starting date of festivities in New Orleans is unknown, but an account from 1743 notes that the custom of Carnival balls was already established by that date. Processions and masking in the streets on Mardi Gras Day were sometimes prohibited by law, but were quickly renewed whenever such restrictions were lifted or enforcement waned. In 1833 Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville, a rich plantation owner, raised money to fund an official Mardi Gras celebration.

On Mardi Gras of 1857, the Mystic Krewe of Comus held its first parade.

Comus is the oldest continuously active Mardi Gras organization and started a number of traditions (for example, the use of floats in parades) and is considered the first Carnival krewe in the modern sense.

War, economic, political, and weather conditions sometimes led to the cancellation of some or all major parades, especially during the American Civil War and World War II, but a celebration of Carnival has always been observed in the city.

Today, many krewes operate under a business structure; membership is open to anyone who pays dues to have a place on a parade float. In contrast, the old-line krewes use the structure of the parades and balls to extend the traditions of the debutante season in their social circles.

The Colors of Mardi Gras The traditional colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. These are said to have been chosen in 1892, when the Rex Parade theme “Symbolism of Colors” gave the colors their meanings.

  • Purple – Justice
  • Green – Faith
  • Gold – Power

Find this year's complete list of Jefferson Parish parade routes! 

Family Gras is concerts, Mardi Gras parades and the Fabulous Flambeau Food Court… See More

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