New Orleans Mardi Gras and Carnival is the best known and one of the oldest Fat Tuesday celebrations in the U.S. More than four million people typically visit New Orleans during Carnival and Mardi Gras each year.
Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday’ —the day before Ash Wednesday when Lent, the traditional period of penance that precedes Easter, begins. Carnival in New Orleans is the season of balls and parades from January 6 (Twelfth Night) to Mardi Gras. Carnival can run as long as two months depending on the church calendar and actual date of Easter.
Contrary to the impression that you might get from viewing mass media coverage, Mardi Gras in New Orleans doesn’t take place primarily on Bourbon Street nor does it consist mostly of drunken revelry and indecent exposure in exchange for cheap beads. Not that there aren’t nudity and strong drink overflowing the French Quarter’s best known street during Mardi Gras—it’s just not the focus of the event for most local participants.
Although many of the traditional Gay Mardi Gras celebrations are centered there, the majority of the historic New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parades don’t even include Bourbon Street in their routes. If you are in New Orleans with children for Mardi Gras stick to the Garden District. Entire extended families stake out prime spots hours in advance—often the same location every year for generations—along each parade route in order to have an up close look at the passing floats and marching clubs and to collect as many ‘throws’ as possible. Strings of beads can be seen hanging from balconies and the branches of trees on Mardi Gras parade routes throughout New Orleans at any time of year. Apparently some throws missed their mark while others are collected for displays.
Mardi Gras is a time for families to celebrate and spend time together. Many thousands of King cakes, decorated in the official Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold—representing justice, faith and power are devoured each year at Mardi Gras parties. Parades are planned as much as a year or more in advance by Mardi Gras Krewes who also hold elaborate balls and parties where their King, Queen and other Royalty are announced for the year.
The greatest honor is to be named Rex, King of Carnival—public recognition of prominent standing in the New Orleans community. Some balls are stylized and formal, complete with tableaux performances and royal marches, while others more closely resemble large dinner/dance parties. One party is even held in the Superdome. Carnival Balls during Mardi Gras are so popular that New Orleans is now one of the country’s largest markets for formal wear. Tuxedos and floor-length evening gowns are required attire at many of the most exclusive balls.
The wearing of masks at the balls, in the parades and on the street has evolved with Mardi Gras. In the late nineteenth century, general street masking was seen as a diversion of poor people and African Americans. The reputations of women who disguised themselves on Mardi Gras were questioned. Today masking is widely practiced and enjoyed. A mask and costume allow a masker to transcend his or her everyday life and construct a new self along with a lot of other people doing the same thing—a large part of the magic and power of Carnival.
Many events over many years contributed to the rich and varied New Orleans Carnival experience. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras may be the best known celebration of its kind in the U.S. but it’s not the only one. In Louisiana cities and towns including Lafayette, Lake Charles and New Iberia follow the New Orleans example of parades and balls in their Carnival celebrations.
Other communities in Louisiana that have been celebrating Mardi Gras the longest practice the courir du Mardi Gras, or house-to-house begging rituals where the ingredients for a large communal gumbo are collected throughout the countryside and later shared at an evening party in town. There are also lots of Mardi Gras celebrations outside of Louisiana. While many towns and cities have intermittent celebrations (frequently canceled because of inclement weather for instance) cities like Mobile, Alabama and Galveston, Texas have Mardi Gras celebrations dating from 1831 and 1867 respectively.
Future Mardi Gras Dates
2018 – February 13
2019 – March 5
2020 – February 25
New Orleans Mardi Gras Krewes
Krewe of Bacchus
Mystic Krewe of Barkus
Krewe of Carrollton
Krewe du Vieux
Mardi Gras Indians
Krewe of Mid-City
Krewe of Orpheus
Krewe of Tucks
Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club