When people hear “Mardi Gras,” they immediately think of a day filled with drinking and flashing. I’m here to let you know, that is not what Mardi Gras is all about. In fact, besides in the French Quarter, flashing is actually illegal in the city of New Orleans. Living in New Orleans for the whole Mardi Gras season has given me
the chance to learn so much about this season (yes, it’s a season not just one day), the history behind it, and the locals’ insight on this holiday.
I arrived in New Orleans on January 6th which happened to be the official first day of the Mardi Gras season. Each year, Mardi Gras starts on January 6th – King’s Day. The season will go until Fat Tuesday which is the day before Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is always 46-days before Easter, and Easter is on a different day each year. Therefore, the actual day of Mardi Gras (or the last day of the season), varies each year. This year Mardi Gras was January 6 – February 13; some years it can go far into March.
Mardi Gras originated as a catholic holiday. People would eat meats and other fatty foods, and celebrate one last time before Ash Wednesday arrived and Lent began. Many years later, this celebration in New Orleans has turned into a whole season: giant parades, fancy costumes, balls, krewes, millions of beads, and so much more. Mardi Gras Day is considered an official holiday; kids are out of school for the week, government places are closed for the day, and people have off work or get holiday pay.
So we will start with talking about the krewes since they are the main part behind the parades and events that get put on. Krewes are basically society clubs in New Orleans. People pay a yearly fee in order to be apart of a krewe. The krewes are the ones who actually put on the parades during Mardi Gras. The parades are all funded by the people (the krewes) and not the city of New Orleans. The people in the krewes get to chose the theme of their parade, floats, costumes, throws, etc. The krewes usually try to have an item they throw that is unique to them. The Krewe of Nixes decorates high-heels and throws them out; the Krewe of Zulu handpaints coconuts and throws them out; and the Krewe of Tucks throws out rolls of toilet paper that are Mardi Gras colors.
Each krewe puts on a ball each Mardi Gras season. Some of the krewes open their balls to the public, while others are exclusively for their specific krewe. The krewe’s balls will either be the evening after their parade, or else some time earlier during the Mardi Gras season. The ball is what it sounds like. The women are to wear formal, floor-length dresses while the men are to come in tuxes or suits. They have a cocktail hour, a dinner, the crowning of their krewe’s king and queen, and a concert.
As I mentioned earlier, parades are put on by the krewes. The parades are the real highlight of Mardi Gras. There is a small walking parade on King’s Day, and then more parades and bigger parades start a couple weeks before Mardi Gras and occur every day leading up to Mardi Gras. There are usually two to three parades in a day/night and each parade can last over an hour or two. There are a mixture of small walking parades, parades made of all women krewes or all men krewes, parades with over forty floats, night-time parades, day-time parades, and even a parade full of dogs. The parades are full of floats, marching bands, dance teams, horses, and so much more.
The floats are magnificent. The colors, themes, and creativity put into them are truly astounding. All the floats are pulled by tractors – each float is to be pulled by a tractor, but krewes have started attaching floats together in order to try to make their parade the one with the most floats. The krewes purchase the float base which costs around $50,000; the floats have bathrooms on them and hooks to hang all the items the krewe members will throw. The floats then get decorated. The sculptures on the float are carved out of Styrofoam, then wrapped in paper mache, and lastly white-washed and painted over. A lot of the sculptures are reused each year; they may be altered a bit, have things added to them, or colors changed to fit a new theme.
Everyone wants to catch cool items at the parades. Obviously beads are thrown out – 250 million Mardi Gras beads get throw out each year! We were told that beads were the original throw items, but eventually the locals got tired of catching beads every year. That’s when the krewes started to get creative and come up with items other than beads to throw. Cups, stuffed animals, boas, umbrellas, sunglasses, bracelets, doubloons (coins with the krewe’s symbol stamped on it), and krewe-specific items are just a few of the throws.
The official traditional colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. Purple symbolizes justice; green symbolizes faith; and gold symbolizes power. These colors can be found everywhere during Mardi Gras season – beads, masks, and house decorations.
One of the traditions that comes along with Mardi Gras is the consumption of King Cake! Ever since I first got to New Orleans, just about everyone came up to me asking if I had eaten King Cake yet – it is definitely a local favorite. King Cake is the official holiday treat of Mardi Gras.
Bakeries, coffee shops, and grocery stores have abundances of King Cake during the Mardi Gras season. King cake tastes somewhat like a cinnamon coffee cake and is glazed over with the colors purple, green, and gold. The tradition is that inside each cake is a plastic baby (king) which is to signify King Jesus. Whoever bites into the slice with the baby in it has to buy the King Cake for the next gathering.
Something I saw at every parade that I found very interesting, was a bunch of ladders lining the street. People would bring ladders to place on the sidewalks to climb and watch the parade from. Some of the ladders were made specifically for their kids. They would have a wooden box-chair attached to the top of the ladder and usually decorated. You could walk down the parade route and see a line of ladders with kids sitting in these seats watching the parade pass by.
And of course the locals love decorating for this holiday. There will be Mardi Gras beads wrapped around fences or hanging on trees in the Garden District. Mardi Gras banners, flags, and tinsel will be wrapped around the porches in the French Quarters. Mardi Gras wreaths will be hanging from doors. I even saw a few Mardi Gras Christmas trees. It is very fun to walk around and see all the bright colors and fancy decorations, and appreciate the work people have put into decorating for this holiday.
So all-in-all, by talking to locals and observing for myself, Mardi Gras is really a time for families to get together and have a good time. They enjoy the time off work, nice weather, and just being together. Many families have cookouts, block parties, go watch the parades together, etc. It really is a family-friendly event and many locals think it’s even better than Christmas. It is a fun season, and something to look forward to every year. I had a great experience during this past Mardi Gras season, and I hope I can make it back for another Mardi Gras in the future.