How Mardi Gras Works

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.

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.

When was the first 'modern' Mardi Gras?

In 1857, a group called the Mystik Krewe of Comus (more about krewes later) staged the first modern-style Mardi Gras parade. The torchlit evening procession of floats illustrated themes from classical mythology and literature.

Following the American Civil War (1861 - 1865), many new krewes, or clubs, began offering additional parades and balls. The Krewe of Rex, organized in 1872, pioneered many innovations that became trademarks of New Orleans Mardi Gras. For example, Rex established the tradition of crowning a King of Carnival, selected the carnival colors (purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power), and adopted the song "If Ever I Cease to Love" as a Mardi Gras anthem.

With occasional lapses caused by world wars, there has been an annual Mardi Gras celebration, complete with parades (about 2,000 in the past two centuries) and parties in New Orleans every year.

Today, Mardi Gras is one of the world's greatest tourist attractions, drawing millions from around the world for the days leading up to Fat Tuesday. Hotels in the metro area (particularly in the historic French Quarter) and restaurants (especially famous ones like The Commander's Palace and Emeril's) are booked months -- and even years -- in advance. All the jazz, blues and Dixieland bands in the state congregate in New Orleans to accompany the festivities on street corners and at bars, hotels, parties and fancy masked balls.

Economists estimate that Mardi Gras generates more than half a billion dollars for the local economy each year. Since no commercial or corporate sponsorships of Mardi Gras parades are permitted, it is the carnival club members who put on the show and foot the bill (Krewe members pay dues, ranging from $250 to $850). There is no overall coordinator of Mardi Gras activities, and each krewe is completely autonomous.

Although Mardi Gras festivities have become increasingly integrated since the 1960s, the African American community of New Orleans has several distinctive carnival customs. The largest African American krewe of Mardi Gras is the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Inc., which presents a show that is considered one of the premier attractions of the Mardi Gras season. Another important African American carnival tradition is the annual appearance of the Mardi Gras Indians, groups of black men who dance through the streets in costumes inspired by the traditional clothing of Native Americans.

A newer tradition of Mardi Gras is the Phunny Phorty Phellows (PPP), a group of about 50 costumed men and women who trumpet the official opening of the carnival season on January 6 by riding a decorated streetcar along the St. Charles Avenue line. Accompanied by a Dixieland band, the group snacks on King Cakes and tosses favors to onlookers.

A Mardi Gras Glossary

Before we go into more detail on what actually happens during Mardi Gras, let's take a look the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau list of some of the most important terms related to the big party in the "Big Easy":

  • Ball (tableau ball) - This is a masked party featuring, as entertainment, the performance of scenes representing a specific theme.
  • Boeuf Gras - This is the fatted bull or ox and symbolizes the last meat eaten before the Lenten season of fasting (the "live" version presented in the Rex parade was replaced in 1959 by a papier-mache version). The Boeuf Gras is one of the most photographed sights at Mardi Gras.
  • Captain - The leader of each Mardi Gras organization
  • Court - The king, queen, maids and dukes of a Mardi Gras organization
  • Doubloons - These are aluminum, coin-like objects bearing the krewe's insignia on one side and the parade's theme on the reverse. Doubloons were first introduced in 1960 and created by New Orleans artist H. Alvin Sharpe. Doubloons are also minted and sold in .999 silver, bronze and cloisonne.
  • Favor - This is a personalized souvenir, given by organization members to friends attending the ball.
  • Invitation - This is a non-transferable printed request for attendance at a Mardi Gras ball. Note: It is considered improper to call these "tickets."
  • King Cake - This is an oval, sugared cake with a plastic baby doll hidden inside. The person who finds the doll is crowned "king" and buys the next colorful cake. The King Cake season opens on King's Day, January 6. According to "Mardi Gras Guide" publisher Arthur Hardy, more than 750,000 King Cakes are eaten each year in New Orleans during carnival season, and thousands more are ordered from special bakeries and shipped to celebrants around the country.
  • Krewe - This is the generic term for all carnival organizations and clubs in New Orleans. Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology are the sources for nearly half the krewe names. Some clubs are named after the neighborhoods through which they travel, while others are named after historical figures or places. Clubs are chartered as non-profit entities and are financed by dues, by the sale of krewe-emblemed merchandise to its members and by fund-raising projects. Most Mardi Gras krewes are also involved in charity work.
  • Lundi Gras - This is French for Fat Monday. From 1897 to 1917, the day before Mardi Gras was celebrated by the arrival of King Rex aboard a steamboat. The custom was revived in 1987.
  • Throws - These are inexpensive souvenirs tossed from floats (since around 1871) by costumed and masked krewe members in response to traditional calls of, "Throw me something, mister!" These "throws" include doubloons, plastic cups and necklaces.

The Parades

This young parade-goer made sure she was high enough to catch some of the coveted beads tossed into the crowds during one of Mardi Gras' colorful parades.
This young parade-goer made sure she was high enough to catch some of the coveted beads tossed into the crowds during one of Mardi Gras' colorful parades.
Photo courtesy New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau

Proud residents who participate in the 70 or so parades leading up to Fat Tuesday claim that Mardi Gras parades boast the most imaginative themes, spectacular floats and outrageous costumes in the world. (If you can't get to New Orleans and you want to see for yourself, check out the live broadcasts at the official Mardi Gras site.)

During the 12-day period leading up to Mardi Gras, the parades are held in the four-parish area of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard. Competition for the best floats is friendly but fierce! Parades start each day at 8 a.m. and continue until after sundown. Mardi Gras is officially over at the stroke of midnight on Ash Wednesday.

While some pre-season parades have become quite elaborate, local parish ordinances dictate that the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade season officially begins on the second Friday before Fat Tuesday.

There is no general theme for Mardi Gras, but each individual parade depicts a specific subject. The floats reflect the krewe's theme for that year, and masked members are costumed to illustrate the parade theme and the individual float title. Popular themes featured since 1857 have included historical events, children's stories, legends, geography, famous people, mythology and literature.

The most spectacular parades occur during the last five days of the celebration. This is when the larger parades (by clubs such as Orpheus, Bacchus, Zeus, Rex, Zulu and Bards) wind their way through the streets.

Less than a dozen clubs build original floats each year. Since the floats are used only once, these krewes have greater flexibility with the subject of their parade (and often produce award winners!). Most other krewes select from a pool of rental floats, and their themes tend to be generic in nature so that a float entitled "The Sheep in the Meadow" in a parade with the theme of "Little Bo Peep" might pop up a couple of days later leading another parade called "Favorite Nursery Rhymes." Floats are serious business though -- in Orleans Parish, a city ordinance prohibits the use of the same float more than twice in the Central Business District during any given parade season!

The super-krewes -- those featured in parades in the last three days before Fat Tuesday -- might present a combined total of 110 floats, 90 marching bands and more than 350 units. Their collective 3,500 members toss more that 2 million cups, 3.5 million doubloons and 350,000 beads. They also invite guest celebrities to ride in their parades -- stars such as Bob Hope, Dolly Parton, John Goodman, Kirk Douglas, Harry Connick, Jr. and the Beach Boys.

Almost all parades follow a standard format: The captain, or krewe leader, appears at the head of the procession, either on a special float, in a convertible or on horseback. Next come the officers, the king or queen, and, in some parades, the maids and dukes, followed by the title float and the floats that carry riding members.

The method of selecting Mardi Gras royalty varies from krewe to krewe. King of Carnival is chosen by the inner circle of the School of Design, the sponsoring organization for the all-important Rex parade. Some krewes hold random drawings to choose their king or queen, and most clubs charge the selected monarch a fee for the honor.

The Costumes

You don't have to wear a costume if you don't enjoy that kind of thing. However, when you look around, you may feel stranger out of costume than in it. (You might want to at least don one of the masks sold on every street corner.) Costuming is big business in New Orleans.

Originally, costumes were worn to keep the identities of krewe members secret. Today, the secretiveness is no longer a big deal. However, you can still risk your membership in older krewes, like Comus and Rex, if you take off your mask during the parade, though even they usually forgive krewe members for moving their masks slightly to drink more easily or to kiss a happy bead recipient.

Veteran parade-goers warn newcomers to dress comfortably -- either in costume or streetwear -- for the parades, to bring a bag for their throws and extra tissue for use in the port-a-potties scattered around the city. You can check parade routing and view the spectacles from curbside, or you may want to enjoy Mardi Gras by purchasing tickets to the city's reserved grandstand seats.

Also, if you're going to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, make sure your trip is a safe and pleasant one by checking out the survival tips offered by the official Mardi Gras site.

Family Fun?

While it's true that the annual Fat Tuesday celebration has become synonymous with adult entertainment, city tourism officials and business people have gotten together to promote alternatives to hanging out in the sometimes rowdy French Quarter during Mardi Gras.

For example, some local tour companies specialize in providing entertainment for children during Mardi Gras. While parents are collecting beads in the Quarter, staff (all trained in CPR and bonded) will take their children for a ride on the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar, the world's oldest continuously running street car, or on a carriage ride with stops at places like the Musee Conti Wax Museum to check out figures wearing traditional Mardi Gras costumes.

There are cooking classes in which children create their own traditional "King Cake" with its purple, green and gold icing. And scavenger hunts or Mardi Gras trivia tours can be arranged for groups in the French Quarter. Families will also enjoy special programs at the Louisiana Children's Museum, where all Mardi Gras activities are included in the price of admission.

If your children have their hearts set on seeing some of the parades, some local hotels, such as the Hotel InterContinental, invites youngsters to watch from their private reviewing stands on St. Charles Avenue. Children get a great view of the parade, and when they need a break they can retire to the hotel's game room for some organized Mardi Gras fun.

And don't forget about Mardi Gras Maskathon, a family-oriented costume contest that is held on Fat Tuesday at 2 p.m. in the 600 block of Canal Street.

Another great family outing is a dinner and jazz cruise on a paddlewheeler that takes you down the Mississippi River for a view of old plantations and properties.

If time and budget constraints don't allow a trip to New Orleans this Mardi Gras season, involve the whole family in planning your own Mardi Gras party, complete with King Cakes and mini parade floats made with items you can find around the house!

If you'd like to go to Mardi Gras next year, start planning now -- there is a lot of good information on the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site.

For more information on Mardi Gras and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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