Mardi Gras officially begins on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, and basically continues non-stop until midnight on Fat Tuesday, when - if you're partying in the Quarter and happen to be stumbling around the streets - you'll be spotted like Cinderella at midnight with her carriage turning into a pumpkin...you'll want to get yourself inside an establishment QUICKLY, as the police and clean-up crew line up on each street and a whistle blows, signaling them to move forward and brush all pedestrians aside off the street - "Mardi Gras is OVER. Move OFF the street NOW!".
It's almost a shock to the system to experience this eerie, sober interlude after you've been partying for hours (days, even). It's a true Gotham City moment - one you try to include in your Mardi Gras repertoire of experiences, if possible.
That is, if you dare...
Mardi Gras was a French holiday introduced to New Orleans some time around the turn of the 17th century (around 1699). Otherwise known as Carnival, Mardi Gras actually translates as "Fat Tuesday" in French, which is more or less a metaphor for the hedonistic excesses that are carried out during this festive time.
Mardi Gras can fall any time between February 3 and March 9, depending on the Lunar calendar used by the Catholic Church to determine the date of Easter. (Mardi Gras is always 47 days before Easter Sunday.)
The Mardi Gras season begins on January 6 and continues until Fat Tuesday, which of course is the day before Ash Wednesday. During this time, parade schedules are posted everywhere and there's usually one taking place every few evenings (Iris is an exception - an all female crewe with the parade taking place during the day). The excitement and crackling energy - a complete "joie de vivre" is palpable during these weeks leading up to the main event - it used to be my favorite time of the year.
Note about the locals: Many long-time New Orleans residents actually get out of the city during Mardi Gras, fed up with the tourists and the debauchery that takes place in unprecedented levels during this time. They come back only on Ash Wednesday, when the city seems introspective and quiet - an always tolerant witness to the crazy activities leading up to the Holy Day.
What was also fun, is that businesses and the Universities officially close during Monday and Tuesday, considering these two days as "holidays". I used to love that!
Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the day before Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins. Because Lent is traditionally a time when people give up rich foods and luxuries, Mardi Gras is the last day to party down, and New Orleans does it in style. The parades begin a few weeks before the actual day.
Uptown is the best place to see the parades. On Canal Street, metal police barricades prevent you from getting close to the floats, and that's a problem if you're trying to get a Zulu coconut, which is a much-prized souvenir of Mardi Gras parades.
The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is an all-black krewe (krewes are select groups that sponsor floats in the parades) dating back to the early 20th century. Instead of throwing beads and trinkets to the crowd, Zulu float riders give out small painted coconuts. Originally they threw the coconuts, but at one Mardi Gras, an unfortunate bystander leaned the wrong way and was knocked out by a flying coconut. Now Zulu krewe members are required to hand the coconuts to onlookers.
For more information and photographs, please see my Mardi Gras 2006 travelogue.
The history of Mardi Gras actually began in ancient Rome. In mid-February the ancient Romans celebrated a festival then known as "Lupercalia." When Rome embraced Christianity, early leaders of the Church thought it better to incorporate certain aspects of celebration's rituals into the new faith rather than attempt to abolish them altogether. Carnival became a period of partying with reckless abandon and preceded the penance of Lent, thus tying together Christian customs and a monster of a party. A match made in... uh, heaven!
Mardi Gras came to America in 1699 with the French explorer Iberville. Mardi Gras had been celebrated as a major holiday in Paris since the Middle Ages. Iberville sailed into the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River. On March 3, 1699 Iberville set up camp about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today. This was the day Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France. And so began the first Mardi Gras in the US!
First, you must come to Mardi Gras. Second, you must attend as many parades as your legs and liver can possibly handle! The parades are loads of fun, with major celebrities riding on the floats in the big parades. LOTS and LOTS of beads and assorted trinkets are thrown into the abyss of people lining the street. It has to be experienced firsthand! The Krewes that put on the parades go all out with their floats. Planning for a floats starts months before and some of the designs produced are spectacular! Most are Las Vegas-style with glittering, flashing lights and others are grand productions of some sort or the other. You will be suprised (maybe, excited?!) at what some people will do for beads! You may want to leave the kids at home for this one!
I was in New Orleans at Easter the first time, and this time in December, so of course could not attend Mardi Gras.
But our hotel information person told us we could ride across to Algiers on the ferry (free for pedestrians) and go to Mardi Gras World and see the floats. So on our last day in New Orleans, we crossed to Algiers.
On the New Orleans side where the pedestrians get off, the ferry terminal has 6 signs like these two which tell the history of the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
#1 says that it was a European custom involving sugar coated almonds. (My picture is blurry so I can't read it all)
#2 Explains that in 1857, a group of men formed a secret society called the Mystick Krewe of Comus and had the first parade on Februrary 24th and used flambeauxs to light the procession.
#3 talks about the Krewe of Rex formed in 1872 -- principally to honor the visiting Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia. The Krewe of Rex gave Mardi Gras the colors, song, flag, and a half holiday.
#4 tells about the black carnival clubs of which Zulu was the first to march and says that Louis Armstrong was honored as King Zulu in 1949.
The first of the two pictured talked about the "Superkrewes" such as Bacchus and Endymion that were formed in the 60s and 70s .
The last one says, Mardi Gras in the suburbs of New Orleans has grown through the years to bring carnival revelry throughout the metropolitan area. Today, suburban krewes enable families to enjoy the spectacle of flats, gands, marching groups and shout "Throw me somethin' mister!" in their own neighborhood.
If you know someone who can hook you up with a carnival Krewe ride, do so as it is a experience not to be missed.
Mardi Gras has changed quite drastically for the old timers, to the point that we do not really go anymore. But for those that have not made this trek, then Bacchus and Endymion cannot be missed. A nighttime festival of moving and blinking lights - prepare the eyes to feast on perception candy.
Mardi Gras is winding down as I write. Our dispirited community has gathered itself together for its annual frenzy, many times the energy of last year. Yey two blocks from where these pictures were taken are lines of FEMA trilers and recent tornado-destroyed houses some of which were under repair! The last parade forms around the corner from my home along the central ground of S. Claiborne Avenue, and it is a Truck Parade for the common folk. Last year there were only 14 trucks but this year we lost count around 100. The theme was supposedly related to eduction and civic pride but sometimes we could not see the connection. Nobody seems to have looked at my 2006 Tip probably because i put it under CUSTOMS, so I will try under Things to Do (one more time). I am sure that New Orleans is nothing more than a dwindling fond memory, return will be as long delayed as the promised Federal money.
Party lasted all night long. Strings of beads were thrown to the audience of the parade. We managed to catch quite a few. Though there were no King and Queen of Mardi Gras or get to meet the famous Harry Connick Jr, we had the time of our lives that forever will be engraved in our memories.
The official colors for Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. These colors were chosen in 1872 by the King of Carnival, Rex (Rex means "king" in Latin).
- Purple represents justice
- green stands for faith
- gold represents power.
MARDI GRAS...BURBON STREET...
NO RULES THE CITY BECOMES ONE BIG PARTY, BOTH OUTDOORS AND IN. I HAVE NEVER BEEN WITH SUCH A LARGE AND ROWDY CROWED IN MY LIFE.......I AM AMAZED AT THE LACK OF TROUBLE THAT THE LARGE CROWDS DON'T HAVE....