For the rest of the country, the new year signals the end of the holiday season. For us in New Orleans, however, the holidays are just getting started. Mardi Gras, or Carnival season (yes, it’s a whole season), kicks off on January 6 and this year runs through the beginning of March. Pop culture would have you believe that Mardi Gras is a nonstop blowout with ladies flashing for beads and drunks strewn all over Bourbon Street, but the reality is very different—and far more entertaining. #FrayLife is here to debunk the myths and give you the real 411 so you can enjoy the “Greatest Free Show on Earth” like a local.
What is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” is a Christian holiday on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The name refers to the last indulgent feast day before the Lent season and fasting begin. Mardi Gras traces its roots all the way back to medieval Europe, but the first signs of what Mardi Gras in New Orleans looks like today appeared with the first Krewe of Comus parade and ball in 1857. While Mardi Gras is one day, in New Orleans people use the terms “Mardi Gras” and “Carnival” interchangeably, so the term often refers to the whole Carnival season, with “Mardi Gras Day” being used to specify Fat Tuesday itself.
You mean it’s more than one day?
Yes! The Mardi Gras season begins each year on Twelfth Night, January 6. The season runs through Mardi Gras Day, which changes every year (this is why you’ll hear people talk about a “short” or “long” season). During the season, private krewes put on numerous parades and balls every weekend, with more and more celebrations in the days ramping up to Mardi Gras Day.
What is a krewe?
A Mardi Gras krewe is a private organization that puts on a parade during the Carnival season. Parades usually involve elaborate floats ridden by masked krewe members, plenty of throws, a celebrity king and/or queen, and marching bands and walking dance groups. The first krewes, like the Krewe of Rex and the Krewe of Proteus, were men only. Many have since been opened up to everyone, but there are also many all-women krewes, like the Krewe of Iris and the Krewe of Muses. The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club was the first krewe of African Americans and remains the biggest. Nowadays there are nearly 100 local krewes with a variety of focuses, from nerd culture (the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus) to dogs (the Krewe of Barkus) to all things raunchy (the Krewe du Vieux). There are three super-krewes: the Krewe of Bacchus, the Krewe of Endymion, and the Krewe of Orpheus, and these krewes put on massive parades (with each float carrying hundreds of members), laser light shows, and huge star-studded balls. Most krewe memberships are by invitation only, though some are open to everyone.
What is a Mardi Gras ball?
Most krewes host a ball after their parade rolls. These are generally black-tie dinner dances open only to krewe members and guests. Many have aristocratic origins and include a formal court and maybe even some debutantes (think really fancy prom, but mostly for adults). The super-krewes throw gigantic extravaganzas for tens of thousands of people with top-billed performers. Last year, Endymion’s ball featured Rod Stewart and Jason Derulo.
What is a Mardi Gras Indian?
The Mardi Gras Indians, an institution all on their own, have a rich and turbulent past. Historically, New Orleans, as with most of the country, began with years of slavery and racism that segregated people of color from white society. The first Mardi Gras krewes were invitation only, and these invitations were only ever extended to white men of means. As white Mardi Gras customs developed, so too did the black neighborhoods of New Orleans develop their own Mardi Gras traditions. They named their krewes after Native American tribes, and instead of kings, they had big chiefs. Originally the Mardi Gras Indians, which sometimes were like gangs, used Mardi Gras Day as an opportunity to “settle scores,” usually quite violently. Nowadays, the Indian tribes still confront one another, but instead of violence, their meetings involve chanting and dancing. Participants spend an entire year crafting elaborate costumes—hand stitching thousands of beads and feathers—and a Mardi Gras Indian in action is a sight unlike any other.
Why does everyone go crazy over plastic beads?
While beads are the most well-known Mardi Gras “throw,” there’s a wide variety, and each parade has its own spin on throws. A “throw” is simply something thrown by krewe members into the crowd. Beads are a common throw, as are plastic cups, toys, and collectible doubloons, most marked with the krewe’s name and that year’s theme. Many of the smaller krewes specialize in homemade throws, which can be extremely sought-after, like the hand-decorated shoes thrown by the Krewe of Muses. Why does everyone go crazy? Because it’s fun!
#FrayLife Tip: You do NOT need to show any skin to “earn” beads. This is a total myth, most likely the result of creeps trying to take advantage of tourists.
What’s the deal with king cake?
It’s impossible to celebrate a holiday in New Orleans without a special kind of food for the occasion! The king cake tradition is thought to have come from France in the 1870s. The baby inside the cake represents Jesus showing himself to the three wise men, or kings. Traditionally king cake is an oval-shaped cake made of braided dough with yellow, purple, and green icing on top. Its closest relative is a coffee cake or danish, and it is usually flavored with almond and cinnamon. Today you can find king cakes in a huge variety of flavors, some with fruit, whipped cream, and even cream cheese. Who makes the best king cake is a hotly contested subject in the city!
How are you going to celebrate Mardi Gras this year? Tag #FrayLife and #NOLAFray in all your revelries!
View More Articles By Katie Baer