10 Surprising Things You Didn't Know About Mardi Gras
There's more to the quintessential Cajun Carnival experience than Fat Tuesday, which takes place on March 5 this year. Learn more about what makes this time in New Orleans so irresistible...and laissez les bons temps rouler!
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The Date of Mardi Gras Changes Every Year
But it's always on a Tuesday.
Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans originated during the French colonial rule of Louisiana, and its roots are tied to the traditions of the Catholic Church. Celebrated on the last day of Carnival season, Mardi Gras signals an end of indulgence and beginning of observed austerity during Lent, which begins the following day on Ash Wednesday.
Fat Tuesday comes 47 days before Easter, the date of which changes every year, too. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs after the first day of spring. Easy to remember, right? Check out this calendar to plan your future visits.
But...Mardi Gras Season Always Starts on the Same Day
Carnival season begins on Twelth Night (or the Feast of Epiphany), which always falls on January 6. Season (as it is called by locals) kicks off with the Krewe de Jeanne d'Arc Parade in the French Quarter. Further strenghtening the ties of modern Mardi Gras with its French colonial origins, this walking parade honors the legacy of Joan of Arc.
Uptown sees the satirical Phuny Phorty Phellows krewe take over a single car on the famous St. Charles Streetcar Line for the night. From the Vieux Carre to Riverbend, Mardi Gras merriment always starts on the same day in New Orleans.
There's More Than One Parade
The Mardi Gras Day parade on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans actually consists of four separate parades that follow each other: Zulu, Rex, Elks Orleans and Crescent City. These parades follow one after the other so it's easy to see how they might be confused as one singular entity.
Pictured here is the King Rex of Carnival—a.k.a. the King of Mardi Gras—parading down St. Charles Avenue. Every year a new King and Queen are chosen, and these honorary titles are some of the highest distinctions in New Orleans.
And There's More Than One Day of Parades, Too
Over 40 parades will take place in the City of New Orleans during Carnival season so you don’t always have to be in town on Fat Tuesday to get a taste of the vibe. Parades begin on January 6 and occur with increasing frequency until Mardi Gras Day.
Some other fun parades to check out are Proteus (pictured) and Orpheus on Lundi Gras (the Monday before Mardi Gras), Endymion—one of the largest parades—held on the Saturday preceding Fat Tuesday, and, held two Sundays before Mardi Gras, Barkus (that’s right: it’s a dog and puppy parade!).
See a comprehensive list of the New Orleans-area Carnival season parades here.
There's More to Catch Than Just Beads
Throws are keepsakes that are—you guessed it—thrown from parade floats into the gathered crowds, and there’s no topless flashing required (some parades are strictly family affairs so lifting up your shirt might get you in a world of legal trouble).
While beads, medallions, cups and toys are common throws at most parades, some krewes have signature throws. Cherished captures are the Zulu coconut, decorated shoes from the ladies of the Muses Krewe, and fancy purses from the Krewe of Nyx.
Beyond the French Quarter
When most people think about New Orleans, they imagine the charming yet cramped streets of the French Quarter. The same narrow streets that make the French Quarter unmistakable also make it difficult, dangerous or impossible for floats to wind their way through. While the Vieux Carré sees plenty of action during Mardi Gras season, parades take place all over the city. Mid-City and the Marigny also see Carnival parades during season.
To accommodate larger floats, many parades roll Uptown along St. Charles Avenue, famous for its streetcar boulevards. The streetcars do not run during parades, and this "high ground" is a sought-after spot from which to take in the action.
Mardi Gras revelers stroll by a house in Uptown that's been decorated with traditional colors: green (symbolizing faith), gold (power) and purple (justice).
Beyond New Orleans
Cajun Mardi Gras features a different kind of revelry. Pictured here in Eunice, Louisiana, townspeople take part in the Courir de Mardi Gras where they compete to catch a live chicken as they move from house to house.
Once captured, this chicken will become part of the communal gumbo served on Fat Tuesday.
Carnival celebrations take place almost everywhere Catholicism has held sway. From Italy to Brazil to Panama and beyond, Carnival season carries on outside of New Orleans.
In fact, Mobile, Alabama boasts the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the United States.
Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs
Behind the revelry of Mardi Gras season lies the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs that organize parades, balls and community engagement throughout the year. Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs—or krewes—have roots dating to the 1800s, and each one is a little different from the next.
Krewe membership restrictions vary from club to club. Some require family heritage while others rely strictly on the ability to pay dues, which can range from $20 to thousands of dollars per year. Some krewes require members to build floats and design their own costumes while others hire professionals.
The Mystic Krewe of Nyx and the Krewe of Cleopatra are two New Orleans organizations that restrict krewe membership to women while Krewe of Endymion is only for men. Pictured above is the Krewe of Zulu, one of the largest African-American krewes, which rolls on Fat Tuesday.
Learn more about New Orleans Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs here.
Legend says that if you eat a slice of King Cake before Twelfth Night on January 6, it will rain on Mardi Gras day. Nevertheless, bakeries all over the city make this colorful cinnamon-roll-like cake all year long.
King Cakes date to the 15th century and come in many styles around the world. Louisiana style can see the insides stuffed with cream cheese, praline, apples, strawberry preserves or any combination thereof.
Decorated with sugary icing and Mardi Gras-colored sprinkles, the King Cake holds a secret: a tiny plastic baby inside. If your piece has the baby, tradition dictates that you're in charge of supplying the next King Cake.
You don't have to be in New Orleans to get a taste of this classic sweet. King Cakes are available to ship from instutitions like Joe Gambino's and Manny Randazzo's as well as local grocery chain Rouses.