There’s one obvious answer to the question, “What is the difference between Mardi Gras and Carnival?” and that’s where they’re celebrated. Mardi Gras is synonymous with New Orleans, and Carnival is mostly associated with Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—but they’re both known as big, debauchery-encouraging public parties with lots of music and flashy costumes, and they even have the same origins. So let’s dig into both their differences and their similarities.
What Is Mardi Gras?
It’s fairly well known that Mardi Gras—that world-famous New Orleans party/parade tradition complete with elaborate floats, historic krewes, live bands, and lots of plastic beads—is also known as “Fat Tuesday.” That’s because it was traditionally the last time for Roman Catholics to enjoy rich foods before Ash Wednesday, which kicks off the lean fasting season of Lent (40 whole days of giving things up in the name of spiritual improvement; it ends right before Easter, which might have something to do with why candy-laden Easter baskets became a thing).
pancakes, which could accommodate the last of the butter, sugar, milk, and eggs before all those indulgent foods had to be given up for Lent. (This is also why the rich Polish doughnuts known as paczki became so closely associated with Fat Tuesday.)The day before Ash Wednesday also has a couple other nicknames: It’s called Shrove Tuesday (as it was the day when those who went to confession before Lent were “shriven” or absolved from their sins), and Pancake Tuesday because it was a good day for making
So Mardi Gras is Fat Tuesday is Pancake Tuesday is Shrove Tuesday—but “Mardi Gras” is the particular name that stuck to the symbolic parades and parties held in New Orleans, a city with a lot of French influence on its culture. The first Mardi Gras celebration in the United States is said to have occurred in what is now New Orleans in March 1699—but Mobile, Alabama also lays claim to the distinction, and they certainly had their own strong Mardi Gras parade tradition before NOLA stole the national (and international) spotlight with its infamous Bourbon Street shenanigans.
The parade aspect of Mardi Gras is particularly iconic—the masks, the floats, the flying beads (and doubloons, and Moon Pies), the crowds—but there’s not just one parade. There are 11 parades on Fat Tuesday alone this year, and each one is associated with a specific krewe, a club or organization with its own theme and history, some are newer than others, some going back generations.
Technically, Mardi Gras is just one day within the carnival season, but in most places, especially in New Orleans, it’s now used to denote a period of up to one or two weeks preceding the grand culminating events on Fat Tuesday; that gives everyone a bigger window in which to maximize the good times at even more parades, balls, banquets, and carnival celebrations (even though many modern revelers probably don’t plan on giving anything up once Lent comes around).
Related Reading: The Best New Orleans Food to Order Online for Mardi Gras
What Is Carnival?
Carnival is loosely translated to “kiss your flesh goodbye” in Latin (as in “time to give up meat” instead of something more sinister, though some people do use it as a justification for really getting into the hedonistic nature of the pre-Lenten celebrations). While capital-C Carnival is now known as its own specific celebration in Rio and elsewhere, the word “carnival” also encompasses all Fat Tuesday festivities. That includes Mardi Gras and many other similar celebrations in other traditionally Roman Catholic countries, like Italy (Venice has an especially strong mask and costume tradition)—they’re all part of the carnival season, which begins on Three Kings’ Day (or the Feast of Epiphany, on Jan. 6) and ends on Ash Wednesday.
When you’re talking specifically about the Brazilian Carnival (or Carnavale), you’re talking about huge parades and public street parties, complete with eye-catching costumes—sometimes eye-catching in part because of how skimpy they are, true—floats, music, and feasting (and drinking).
One hallmark of Brazilian Carnival are the samba schools, perhaps superficially best known for their ornately decorated floats, frequently-feathered costumes, and well-practiced dance routines, but they have important roles in their communities that go well beyond the carnival season. In some ways, they can be thought of as analogous to New Orleans’ krewes, though not entirely the same. Costumes are extremely important and specific to each samba school, and you’ll usually see a riot of bright colors. (Mardi Gras decor—even the king cake—heavily favors purple, green, and gold, the traditional shades associated with the event, which represent justice, faith, and power, respectively.)
As in New Orleans and other places where carnival season is celebrated, there are scores of balls and parties that happen in Brazil over a period of several days or weeks in addition to the public festivities for Carnival. And while Mardi Gras is world-famous too, Carnival is considered by many to be the best party anywhere, and a bucket list-worthy destination/event.
Explore Samba City & Carnival Backstage, $15+ on Airbnb
Get a sneak peek behind the scenes of the biggest party in Brazil.
Mardi Gras & Carnival Food
No matter where you celebrate, you’re definitely in for fun times and fabulous food and drink. So check out some carnival season staples from both New Orleans and Brazil to tempt you to indulge—even if you won’t be giving anything up, and even if you never leave your own home for the occasion!
While it may not have the same legions of out-of-state fans as some other New Orleans sweets (like bananas Foster and the sugar-smothered beignets at Café du Monde), ring-shaped, tri-colored king cake is a traditional Mardi Gras staple. Typically, a plastic baby is cooked inside, and whoever gets the slice with the baby must host the next party. Here, the party favor is optional and the cake is delicious, regardless. Get our Mardi Gras King Cake recipe.
This classic gumbo dish is ready in just 40 minutes. After making a golden roux from vegetable oil and flour, soften some onion and bell peppers, simmer andouille sausage and frozen okra, and warm up the shredded chicken, and dinner is served! (Check out even more Mardi Gras recipes that put the “easy” in Big Easy, including our Slow Cooker Shrimp Gumbo recipe.) Get our Easy Chicken Gumbo recipe.
With large pieces of shrimp in a warming, easy bisque, this dish is a classic New Orleans comfort meal. We recommend a large batch for a flavorful and light yet filling meal during the Mardi Gras festivities. Get our Cognac Shrimp Bisque recipe.
While the Hurricane cocktail didn’t originate there, Pat O’Brien’s French Quarter Bar gave it fame after beginning to serve the rum-based drink in the 1930s. It’s deceptively strong and easy to throw together at home. (But don’t sleep on other New Orleans cocktails like the Sazerac or Ramos Gin Fizz—and consider trying them all in fancy Jello shot form!) Get our Hurricane Cocktail recipe.
This jambalaya recipe substitutes the traditional white rice for a nuttier wild rice, while maintaining the traditional sausage, shrimp, and pepper. We recommend this hearty dish before a day or night of Mardi Gras drinking. The tomatoes nod to a Creole heritage, though there’s a lot of overlap between Creole and Cajun food these days. Get our Wild Rice Jambalaya recipe.
The Caipirinha is the national cocktail of Brazil, and cachaça is the key ingredient. For a caramelized twist on the traditional, try tossing the limes in sugar and grilling them before adding their juice; if grilling isn’t an option, you can broil or even blow-torch them. Or just make a classic Caipirinha, which is still a fantastic—and festive—choice! Get our Grilled Caipirinha recipe.
One of the world’s great seafood soups, Brazil’s moqueca is based on coconut milk and palm oil, for a rich, flavorful broth swimming with shrimp and fish. Cilantro and lime juice freshen it up. Get the Moqueca recipe.
If you prefer turf to surf, the traditional Brazilian dish of slow-cooked black beans with lots of different cuts of pork (and/or beef) is perfect—this version is made in the slow cooker, which is even better. It breaks further from tradition in that it doesn’t use any offal, but really, you can throw in whatever cuts you like as long as they’ll benefit from long, slow cooking! Get the Slow Cooker Feijoada recipe.
Related Video: Get the Party Started with These Mardi Gras Cocktails
Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Flickr and Pexels.