Each year, more than 4 million people come to New Orleans from around the world to be part of what is often billed as the "greatest free party on Earth" -- Mardi Gras!

Mardi Gras, also called Carnival in some countries, is celebrated internationally. We're going to focus here on the festivities in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Beginning in January, the city of New Orleans starts a variety of festivities that culminate with Mardi Gras Day, or Fat Tuesday -- the day before Ash Wednesday and Lent. For about two weeks before Fat Tuesday, residents and visitors alike enjoy dozens of parades with imaginative floats bearing costumed party-goers, who toss colored beads and other trinkets into the cheering crowds. The parties continue into the night as revelers seek out distinctive "Nawlins" music as well as Cajun and Creole food.

Most of us have heard of New Orleans' famous French Quarter, but many of us have no idea what Mardi Gras celebrates. In this article, we'll take a closer look at the origins and traditions of Mardi Gras. We'll also look at some ways to enjoy Mardi Gras both in New Orleans and at home.