How Mardi Gras Works

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 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 about 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 $350 to $1,500). 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.