Mardi Gras, French for Shrove Tuesday also known as Fat Tuesday, is well known as a day of wild revelry and excess. It has its origins in the Catholic tradition as it marks the last day for merry-making before Ash Wednesday kicks off the 40 days of quiet contemplation and self-sacrifice called Lent. Mardi Gras is a day rich with symbolism and tradition, and probably no city on Earth has contributed more to the tradition of Mardi Gras than New Orleans, Louisiana. The Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans set the standards for food, music, and decoration, with each element, down to the signature colors of purple, green and gold, steeped in meaning.
Origin of Mardi Gras Colors
The exact origin of the official Mardi Gras colors has been lost to history, but tradition holds that visiting Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia was given the honor of choosing the colors in 1872 when he toured the United States. New Orleans was struggling to get back on its feet after the Civil War, so city officials saw an opportunity to capitalize on the Grand Duke's visit by entertaining the visiting royal while attracting crowds to the city. Even if the Grand Duke did actually choose the official Mardi Gras colors, it is doubtful that any special meaning was initially assigned to the colors. More than likely, the colors were picked because they created a visually appealing combination. In any case, the colors' meanings were not formally revealed until 20 years after the Grand Duke's visit with the 1892 "Symbolism of Colors" parade theme.
Purple - Justice
Purple, which symbolizes justice in the Mardi Gras color scheme, is also a highly symbolic color in Catholicism. Not only does it represent Christ's passion and suffering before his crucifixion, it alludes to his royal position in the kingdom of heaven. Purple is the liturgical color for the Lenten season and appears on priests' vestments and church banners throughout Lent.
Green - Faith
Green is considered a holy color in many religious traditions. In Catholicism, green is the liturgical color for the time between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent and symbolizes renewal and the belief that the faithful will be rewarded with everlasting life through Christ.
Gold - Power
Aside from it's obvious monetary connotation, gold has special meaning within the Catholic church. Gold is reserved for high holy days such as Easter and Christmas because of its celebratory brightness and as a reminder of God's presence.