The Uninteresting Story of the Mardi Gras Colors

What do the purple, gold and green mean?

A house is decorated with purple, green and gold on February 7, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
A house is decorated with purple, green and gold on February 7, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (photo: Erika Goldring / Getty Images)

Today is Mardi Gras. I don’t exactly know what that means, but I’m learning. After years in northern Italy, I’m more accustomed to Carnevale, which has much of the same purpose: a celebration of colossal magnitude just before Lent. Carne meaning meat, and vale an elusive word but meaning “to leave aside,” it’s obviously a reference to giving up meat during Lent. The laws of old required complete abstinence.

But Carnival is celebrated all over the world and is typically just a few days long, even in huge celebrations like in Brazil. So when my neighbors say it’s Mardi Gras season just because it’s between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, I’m understandably confused. Especially when I consider the fact that mardi gras is just “Fat Tuesday” in French. Someone throw me a bone, here.

Like I was saying, I just moved to New Orleans six months ago and it is as if the day after Epiphany, doorsteps all over were immediately adorned in purple, green and gold. As was every beignet and donut shop and every grocery aisle. There are Mardi Gras chips, sodas, sushi, and of course king cakes donning the purple, gold — which I admittedly mistook for yellow — and green. 

And therefore, since Epiphany, and not being able to escape this famous mix of colors, I’ve wondered what the meaning is behind them. Locals would know, right? Here are some of the answers I received while completing this important research assignment:

  • “I think it comes from the colors of the major football schools, here, LSU and Tulane.”
  • “It has something to do with the king. Purple for faith. Green for justice. Gold for power.”
  • “Oh I don’t know. It’s just what we do.”

Fair enough.

I figured that the internet would have a solid answer for sure. Coming from Mardi Gras’ Catholic ties to Lent, I was thinking there is a mix of liturgical colors, royal insignia, and that sort of thing. Turns out, even the best historians are unsure.

Research shows that when the colors were chosen, the exact reason for the colors were left out of the minds of those recording the events. Does that mean the colors were arbitrary? The facts don’t suggest such a conclusion. It’s a historian’s conundrum, the sort of regret the early Dominican historians are famous for: they documented the events, not the meaning, leaving all other things to spoken tradition. What historians can point to are some clues to help us form possible conclusions.

The Mardi Grad parades were founded in the Carnival days 1872 as a special celebration recognizing the arrival of Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia. These became known as “Rex parades,” and were kept alive in order to boost tourism. The king (rex in Latin) was to rule and a ruler needed a flag, according to Errol Flynn Laborde, arch-historian of Mardi Gras. Purple must have been selected a classic sign of royalty. And gold, since the laws of the time required a “metal” to be included in a French coat of arms. Remaining colors of typical coat of arms were red, green, purple, gold and black. And with that, we have no firm reason for the final color of green. All research on heraldic uses fall short of anything certain. Some tell us “green for justice” or “green for emeralds, the jewel of a king,” there is no straightforward reason to modern inquirers for its association with Mardi Gras. Maybe it just looked appealing.

All of these color choice conclusions are, at the bottom of it, the best guesses using handful of historical references. We don’t really know why any of the Mardi Gras colors were chosen for sure. The local was right: “It’s just what we do.”

Unsatisfied with this uninteresting conclusion, I made up my own. Green is the correct liturgical color for the weeks of Ordinary Time between Epiphany and Lent: that’s Mardi Gras season, so it fits well. Purple, then, is included for the season of penance (Lent) we are preparing to enter. Gold, for our king Jesus, representing the Easter octave and our memory of Christ’s glorious triumph over death.

Perhaps with a more meaningful approach to the little things of Mardi Gras, the celebrations may truly prepare the hearts of Christians for the true celebration we hope for: the wedding banquet of Christ and his Church in heaven!