The Show Must Go On

Mardi Gras 2006 fell nearly six months to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans on August 29, 2005. However, the French Quarter and many other famous attractions came through the hurricane with minimal damage, and krewes still held a scaled-back Mardi Gras celebration.

Past floats and parades have poked fun at tragedies and authority figures, and the 2006 offerings continued that tradition. The Krewe du Vieux parade's theme was "C'est Levee" (a play on the French phrase "c'est la vie," meaning "that's life") and floats included fake broken levees, blue tarps and images of Mayor Ray Nagin.

Some cities that traditionally hold Mardi Gras celebrations, such as Mobile, Alabama, had larger crowds than usual. Groups also led Mardi Gras celebrations for Katrina evacuees in cities like Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky, some of which raised funds for Katrina-related charities.

The celebrations in 2007 look to be back to pre-Katrina levels, with more than 700,000 revelers expected to attend.

What does Mardi Gras celebrate?

Considering the raucous nature of Mardi Gras, you might be surprised to learn that the festival has religious roots. Festivities start in New Orleans each year on January 6, the Twelfth Night feast of the Epiphany -- the day, tradition has it, that the three kings first visited Jesus Christ. Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday, is the day-long highlight of the season. While Mardi Gras most certainly has pagan, pre-Christian origins, the Roman Catholic Church legitimized the festival as a brief celebration before the penitential season of Lent. Mardi Gras Day, a legal holiday in New Orleans, is set to occur 46 days (the 40 days of Lent plus six Sundays) before Easter and can come as early as February 3 or as late as March 9.

Mardi Gras is not new. There is evidence that it was being celebrated in New Orleans as early as the 18th century. Mardi Gras was first mentioned in North America in 1699 in the writings of French explorer Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville, who camped on the Mississippi River about 50 miles south of the present location of New Orleans. Knowing that the date, March 3, was being celebrated as a holiday in his native France, he christened the site Point du Mardi Gras.

During the next century, the celebration of Mardi Gras included private masked balls and random street maskings in the cities of Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans. By the 1820s, maskers on foot and in decorated carriages began to appear on Fat Tuesday, and in 1837 the first documented procession took place in New Orleans, but it bore no resemblance to today's carnival.