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The Ultimate Guide to Celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans

EVERYTHING TO KNOW ABOUT EXPERIENCING AN AUTHENTIC MARDI GRAS SEASON IN NEW ORLEANS, INCLUDING HISTORY, TRADITIONS, AND TOP TIPS

Every year, New Orleans is engulfed by masked parade-goers, flying beads, and rolling works of art for several weeks. The historic debauchery takes place the weeks before the Catholic season of Lent, a time of fasting. Mardi Gras season is more than a celebration. It’s an energy that fills the air and excites all who participate. No matter one’s age, experience, or origins, carnival season is full of authentic New Orleans history and traditions that are bound to impress.

The History of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

The history of Mardi Gras runs deeper than the Mississippi River. In the 1730s, New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras, but not as elaborately as today. The early years of carnival season mainly consisted of society balls, horseback riders, and flambeaux, or flaming torches.

In 1856, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, Mardi Gras’ first official Krewe, was formed by Mobile, Alabama natives. The Krewe’s horse-drawn floats and extravagant balls inspired the floats of modern-day parades and jumpstarted the tradition of Mardi Gras Krewes in New Orleans.

When Does Mardi Gras Occur?

Although Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, is one day, the celebration starts weeks, sometimes months in advance. Mardi Gras season always begins on the Twelfth Night, January 6, and ends on Fat Tuesday, the day before Christian Lent begins. Depending on the Catholic Liturgical Calendar, Mardi Gras season occurs from January to February or early March.

Between the Twelfth Night and Fat Tuesday, many New Orleans locals celebrate Family Gras and Lundi Gras. During the two weekends before Fat Tuesday, family-friendly parades roll in Metairie, a suburb outside New Orleans for Family Gras. Lundi Gras is the day before Fat Tuesday and encompasses many symbolic traditions to welcome Mardi Gras Day.

The Top Mardi Gras Traditions

Parades wouldn’t roll without tradition, and beads would hang on the shelves. Artists would be out of work, hotels vacant, and locals bored to tears. Even the practice of King Cakes wouldn’t exist without the rituals of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The Krewes, floats, throws, and king cakes make Mardi Gras the treasured holiday it is known as today.

Mardi Gras Parade Krewes

Mardi Gras krewes make the elaborate parades and balls happen. Each krewe consists of its own social organization, decorating costumes and throws and participating in social work throughout the year. Some of the Krewes’ names, like Bacchus and Orpheus, come from Greek and Roman mythology, while others, like Zulu, come from famous tribes or traditions. The captain and royal court rule over their parades yearly, ensuring a safe and fun experience for riders and parade-goers.

Mardi Gras Parade Floats

Each year, the Krewes hire professional Mardi Gras artists to build their floats of wood, papier-mâché, and tons of glitter. The average Mardi Gras float is ten tons and 50 feet long. Once completed, the floats roll through the streets of New Orleans during parades throughout the carnival season. Each parade has its own theme inspired by entertainment, satire, politics, legends, and beyond.

Mardi Gras Throws and Beads

Parade-goers line the streets of New Orleans to catch free beads, stuffed animals, and doubloons from masked float riders. Each Krewe has special Mardi Gras throws every year in tandem with its history, traditions, and themes. NYX throws embellished purses, the Krewe of Zulu throws hand-decorated coconuts, and Muses throws glittering heeled shoes. Every throw is marked with the Krewe’s emblem and the year, creating coveted collector’s items.

Mardi Gras King Cakes

King Cakes are the most delicious of all the Mardi Gras traditions. The sweet treat’s name comes from the Christian story of the Three Kings who gave gifts to Jesus. Mardi Gras’ signature green, yellow, and purple triad signifies faith, power, and justice and appears atop each King Cake. The cinnamon-spiced dough underneath compares to a coffee cake or a cinnamon roll, shaped into a circle or oval. A plastic baby hides inside — whoever finds it must buy the next King Cake.

How to Experience Mardi Gras Like a New Orleans Local

When visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras, it is essential to abide by the official and unofficial rules of the season. The locals have been participating for years and have a strategy for every affair, from when to arrive to how to stay out all night. When in doubt, do as the locals do. A few ways to experience Mardi Gras like a New Orleans Local include:

  • Getting to the parade route early
  • Keeping all personal items six feet from the curb
  • Staying out of the way of floats, beads, or marching krewes
  • Eating plenty of food and staying hydrated
  • Purchasing a bathroom pass on the parade route
  • Dressing up in Mardi Gras-themed costumes
  • Not moving anyone’s things along the parade route
  • Keeping Mardi Gras family-friendly
  • Not picking up beads that fall in the street
  • Letting the good times roll

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