The New Orleans Carnival season, with roots in preparing for the start of the Christian season of Lent, starts after Twelfth Night, on Epiphany (January 6). It is a season of parades, balls (some of them masquerade balls), and king cake parties. It has traditionally been part of the winter social season; at one time "coming out" parties for young women at débutante balls were timed for this season.
Celebrations are concentrated for about two weeks before and through Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French), the day before Ash Wednesday. Usually there is one major parade each day (weather permitting); many days have several large parades. The largest and most elaborate parades take place the last five days of the season. In the final week of Carnival, many events large and small occur throughout New Orleans and surrounding communities.
The parades in New Orleans are organized by Carnival krewes. Krewe float riders toss throws to the crowds; the most common throws are strings of plastic colorful beads, doubloons (aluminum or wooden dollar-sized coins usually impressed with a krewe logo), decorated plastic throw cups, and small inexpensive toys. Major krewes follow the same parade schedule and route each year.
While many tourists center their Mardi Gras season activities on Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, none of the major Mardi Gras parades has entered the Quarter since 1972 because of its narrow streets and overhead obstructions. Instead, major parades originate in the Uptown and Mid-City districts and follow a route along St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street, on the upriver side of the French Quarter.
To New Orleanians, "Mardi Gras" specifically refers to the Tuesday before lent, the highlight of the season. The term can also be used less specifically the whole Carnival season, sometimes as "the Mardi Gras season". The term "Fat Tuesday" or "Mardi Gras Day" always refers only to that single day.
The celebration of Mardi Gras was brought to Louisiana by early French settlers. The first record of the holiday being celebrated in Louisiana was at the mouth of the Mississippi River in what is now lower Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on March 3, 1699. Iberville, Bienville, and their men celebrated it as part of an observance of Catholic practice.
The starting date of festivities in New Orleans is unknown. An account from 1743 notes that the custom of Carnival balls was already established. Processions and wearing of masks in the streets on Mardi Gras took place, were sometimes prohibited by law, and were quickly renewed whenever such restrictions were lifted or enforcement waned. In 1833 Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville, a rich plantation owner of French descent, raised money to fund an official Mardi Gras celebration.
James R. Creecy in his book "Scenes in the South, and Other Miscellaneous Pieces" describes New Orleans Mardi Gras in 1835 :
Shrove Tuesday is a day to be remembered by strangers in New Orleans, for that is the day for fun, frolic, and comic masquerading. All of the mischief of the city is alive and wide awake in active operation. Men and boys, women and girls, bond and free, white and black, yellow and brown, exert themselves to invent and appear in grotesque, quizzical, diabolic, horrible, strange masks, and disguises. Human bodies are seen with heads of beasts and birds, beasts and birds with human heads; demi-beasts, demi-fishes, snakes' heads and bodies with arms of apes; man-bats from the moon; mermaids; satyrs, beggars, monks, and robbers parade and march on foot, on horseback, in wagons, carts, coaches, cars, &c., in rich confusion, up and down the streets, wildly shouting, singing, laughing, drumming, fiddling, fifeing, and all throwing flour broadcast as they wend their reckless way.
On Mardi Gras of 1857, the Mystick Krewe of Comus held its first parade. Comus is the oldest continuously active Mardi Gras organization. It started a number of continuing traditions. It is considered the first Carnival krewe in the modern sense. In 1875 Louisiana declared Mardi Gras a legal state holiday.
War, economic, political, and weather conditions sometimes led to cancellation of some or all major parades, especially during the American Civil War, World War I and World War II, but the city has always celebrated Carnival.
1972 was the last year in which large parades went through the narrow streets of the city's old French Quarter neighborhood; larger floats and crowds and safety concerns led the city government to prohibit big parades in the Quarter. Major parades now take place outside the Quarter, especially on the wider Canal Street.
In 1979 the New Orleans police department went on strike. The official parades were canceled or moved to surrounding communities, such as Jefferson Parish. Significantly fewer tourists than usual came to the city. Masking, costuming, and celebrations continued anyway, with National Guard troops maintaining order. Guardsmen prevented crimes against persons or property but made no attempt to enforce laws regulating morality or drug use; for these reasons, some in the French Quarter bohemian community are fond of calling 1979 the city's best Mardi Gras ever.
In 1991 the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance that required social organizations, including Mardi Gras Krewes, to certify publicly that they did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, to obtain parade permits and other public licenses. In effect, the ordinance required these, and other, private social groups to abandon their traditional code of secrecy and identify their members for the city's Human Relations Commission. In protest, the 19th-century krewes Comus and Momus stopped parading. Proteus did parade in the 1992 Carnival season but subsequently also suspended its parade for a time. In 2000, Proteus returned to the parade schedule.
Two federal courts later declared that the ordinance was an unconstitutional infringement on First Amendment rights of free association, and an unwarranted intrusion on the privacy of the groups subject to the ordinance. The decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals appears at volume 42, page 1483 of the Federal Reporter (3rd Series), or 42 F.3d 1483 (5th Cir. 1995). The US Supreme Court refused to hear the city's appeal from this decision.
Today, most krewes operate under a business structure; membership is basically open to anyone who pays dues, and any member can have a place on a parade float. In contrast, the old-line krewes were social groups that reinforced class and economics to create exclusive groups. They used the structure of the parades and balls to extend the traditions in their social circles of the debutante season.
The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in late 2005 caused a few people to question the future of the city's Mardi Gras celebrations. One woman, a displaced African-American at an out-of-town shelter, was filmed saying "Mardi Gras is for white people, mostly". Mayor Nagin, who was up for reelection in early 2006, tried to play this sentiment for electoral advantage. However, the economics of Carnival were, and are, too important to the city's revival.
The city government, essentially bankrupt after Hurricane Katrina, pushed for a scaled back celebration to limit strains on city services. However, many krewes insisted that they wanted to and would be ready to parade, so negotiations between krewe leaders and city officials resulted in a compromise schedule. It was scaled back but less severely than originally suggested.
The 2006 New Orleans Carnival schedule included the Krewe du Vieux on its traditional route through Marigny and the French Quarter on February 11th, the Saturday two weekends before Mardi Gras. There were several parades on Saturday, Feb. 18, and Sunday the 19th a week before Mardi Gras. Parades followed daily from Thursday night through Mardi Gras Day. Other than Krewe du Vieux and two Westbank parades going through Algiers, all New Orleans parades were restricted to the Saint Charles Avenue Uptown to Canal Street route, a section of the city which escaped significant flooding. (Some krewes unsuccessfully pushed to parade on their traditional Mid-City route, despite the severe flood damage suffered by that neighborhood).
The city restricted how long parades could be on the street and how late at night they could end. National Guard troops assisted with crowd control for the first time since 1979. Louisiana State troopers also assisted, having assisted for many years during Mardi Gras. Many floats had been partially submerged in floodwaters for weeks. While some krewes repaired and removed all traces of these effects, others incorporated flood lines and other damage into the designs of the floats.
Most of the locals who worked on the floats and rode on them were significantly affected by the storm's aftermath. Many had lost most or all of the possessions in their homes, but enthusiasm for Carnival was even more intense as an affirmation of life. The themes of many costumes and floats had more barbed satire than usual, with commentary on the trials and tribulations of living in the devastated city. References included MREs, Katrina refrigerators and FEMA trailers, along with much mocking of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), local, and national politicians.
By the 2009 season, the Endymion parade had returned to the Mid-City route, and other Krewes expanding their parades Uptown.
|Meaning of Colors|
The traditional colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. These colors are said to have been chosen by Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch Romanoff of Russia during a visit to New Orleans in 1872. This doctrine was reaffirmed in 1892, when the Rex Parade theme "Symbolism of Colors" gave the colors their meanings.
In his book "KREWE: The Early New Orleans Carnival: Comus to Zulu," Errol Laborde shows the above mentioned meanings of the mardi gras colors to be false. He gives a much more simple orgin, having to do primarily with looking good. <Krewe. Errol Laborde. 2007 Carnival Press. pages 57-61>
Each year; the Mardi Gras (or Carnival) season starts on January 6, also known as Twelfth Night. The Twelfth Night Revelers, one of Carnival's oldest Krewes, holds a masked ball each year to mark the occasion. Like Twelfth Night Revelers, many of Carnival's oldest groups, such as the Elves of Oberon and the High Priests of Mithras, hold masked balls, but do not parade in public.
The parade season starts off some three weekends before Mardi Gras Day with the Krewe du Vieux parade.
There is usually at least one parade every night starting two Fridays before Mardi Gras.
The population of New Orleans more than doubles with visitors this day. Thursday night starts off with a bang in an all-women's parade called Muses. The parade is relatively new, but its membership has tripled since its start. It is popular with its throws (highly sought after decorated shoes) and fun themes poking fun at politicians and celebrities. Friday night is the occasion of the large Krewe of Hermes and satirical Krewe D'État parades, as well as smaller neighborhood parades like the Krewe of Barkus and the Krewe of OAK. Several daytime parades roll on Saturday (including Krewe of Tucks) and Sunday (Okeanos and Thoth). The first of the "super krewes", Endymion, parades on Saturday night, with the celebrity-led Bacchus parade on Sunday night.
Monday is known as "Lundi Gras" ("Fat Monday"). The monarchs of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club and Krewe of Rex (who will parade the following day) arrive by boat on the Mississippi River front at the foot of Canal Street, where an all-day party is staged. Uptown parades start with the parade of one of New Orleans' most prestigious organizations, the Krewe of Proteus. Dating back to 1882, it is the second oldest krewe still parading in the city. The Proteus parade is followed by a newer organization, the music-themed super-Krewe of Orpheus, which is less prestigious as it draws a significant portion of its membership from outside the City.
Celebrations begin early on Mardi Gras Day, which can fall on any Tuesday between February 3 and March 9 (depending on the year). Uptown, the Zulu parade rolls first, followed by the Rex parade, which both end on Canal Street. A number of smaller parading organizations with "truck floats" follow the Rex parade.
Numerous smaller parades and walking clubs also parade around the city. The Jefferson City Buzzards, the Lyons Club, Pete Fountain's Half Fast Walking Club and the KOE all start early in the day Uptown and make their way to the French Quarter with at least one jazz band. At the other end of the old city, the Society of Saint Anne journeys from the Bywater through Marigny and the French Quarter to meet Rex on Canal Street. The Pair-O-Dice Tumblers rambles from bar to bar in Marigny and the French Quarter from noon to dusk. Various groups of Mardi Gras Indians, divided into uptown and downtown tribes, parade in their finery.
For upcoming Mardi Gras Dates through 2050 see: Mardi Gras Dates.
The formal end of Mardi Gras arrives with "the Meeting of the Courts", a term describing the ceremony at which Rex and His Royal Consort, the King and Queen of Carnival, meet with the King and Queen of the Mistick Krewe of Comus, New Orleans' oldest active Carnival organization. The Meeting of the Courts happens at the conclusion of the two groups' masked balls, which in modern times have both been held at New Orleans' Municipal Auditorium. In 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, the Final Ball was held in the Marriott Hotel.
Promptly at the stroke of midnight at the end of Fat Tuesday, a mounted squad of New Orleans police officers make a show of clearing upper Bourbon Street where the bulk of out-of-town revelers congregate, announcing that Mardi Gras is over, as it is the start of Lent, commencing with Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday (the day after Fat Tuesday) is sometimes jokingly referred to as "Trash Wednesday" because of the amount of refuse typically left in the streets by the previous day's celebrations. The tons of garbage picked up by the city sanitation department is a local news item, as it also reflects the positive economic impact of tourists and each year's celebration of Mardi Gras.
Costumes and masks are seldom publicly worn by non-Krewe members on the days before Fat Tuesday (other than at parties), but are frequently worn on Mardi Gras Day. Laws against concealing one's identity with a mask are suspended for the day. Banks are closed, and some businesses and other places with security concerns (such as convenience stores) post signs asking people to remove their masks before entering.
Orleans Parish has laws prohibiting any form of commercial advertising on Carnival parades. Mardi Gras is a traditional holiday, so there is no such thing as an official Mardi Gras product or sponsor, any more than there can be, say, an official sponsor of Christmas. Nonetheless, many merchants sell so-called "official" merchandise to visiting tourists. A common con often played on tourist is a "ticket" to Mardi Gras. There is no official invitation-only celebration that requires a ticket. Mardi Gras is composed of various events such as balls for social clubs in the New Orleans Area, but the main event is simply a street festival, open to the public. Some individual krewes do, however, produce an official poster of their organization each year. There are also viewing stands erected along St. Charles Avenue which require a ticket for seating.
The one exception to lack of official sponsorship was the 2006 Mardi Gras season. Due to budget problems following Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans offered the opportunity for four companies to become the first corporate sponsors of Mardi Gras. National media buying club MediaBuys.com was selected by the city to locate sponsors in a 30-day window. There was concern that without this drastic step, the city government would lack funds to provide basic services for the parades. Glad was the only company to take the offer. In addition to its significant program commitment, Glad worked with the City of New Orleans Department of Sanitation in the carnival's sanitation maintenance and clean-up efforts, which would otherwise have mounted a considerable expense for the municipality.
Inexpensive strings of beads and toys have been thrown from floats to parade-goers since at least the late 19th century. Until the 1960s, the most common form was multi-colored strings of glass beads made in Czechoslovakia. These were supplanted by less expensive and more durable plastic beads, first from Hong Kong, then from Taiwan, and more recently from China. Lower-cost beads and toys allow riders to purchase greater quantities and throws have become more numerous and common.
In the 1990s, many people lost interest in small, cheap beads, often leaving them where they landed on the ground. Larger, more elaborate metallic beads and strands with figures of animals, people, or other objects have become the sought-after throws. David Redmon's 2005 film of cultural and economic globalization, Mardi Gras: Made in China, follows the production and distribution of beads from a small factory in Fuzhou, China to the streets of New Orleans during Carnival.
With the advent of the 21st century, more sophisticated throws began to replace simple metallic beads. Krewes started to produce limited edition beads and plush toys that are unique to the krewe. Fiber optic beads and LED-powered prizes are now among the most sought-after items. In a retro-inspired twist, glass beads have returned to parades. Now made in India, glass beads are one of the most valuable throws.
Social clubs play a very large part in the Mardi Gras celebration. Many of the parades on or around Mardi Gras Day are hosted by social clubs. The two main Mardi Gras Day parades, Zulu and Rex, are both social clubs, Zulu being mostly African-American and Rex mostly Caucasian. Social Clubs also host balls related to Mardi Gras, starting mainly in late January. At these social balls, the queen of the parade (usually a young woman between the ages of 18-21, not married and in high school or college) and the king (an older male member of the club) present themselves and their court of maids (young women aged 16-18), and different divisions of younger children with small roles in the ball and parade, such as a theme-bearer.
This tradition began in 1872, when New Orleans officials, in a quandary regarding who - in a city free of nobility - should greet Grand Duke Romanoff during his visit, formulated an elegant solution. They formed the Krewe of Rex and named a de facto "king for the day" to receive their royal guest. Rex was made up of people from the white social elite of the city, heavily influenced by those of French descent.
In response to the their exclusion from Rex, in 1909 Créole and black New Orleanians, led by a mutual aid group known as "The Tramps", adorned William Storey with a tin can crown and banana stalk scepter and named him King Zulu. This display was meant as a mockery of Rex's overstated pageantry, but in time, Zulu became a grand parade in its own right. By 1949, as an indication of Zulu's increase in prestige, the krewe named New Orleans' native son Louis Armstrong as its king.
Being a member of the court requires much preparation, usually months ahead. Women and girls must have dress fittings as early as the May before the parade, as the season of social balls allows little time between each parade. These balls are generally by invitation only and are hosted at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
One of the many Mardi Gras throws which krewes fling into the crowds, doubloons are large coins, either wood or metal, made in Mardi Gras colors. Artist H. Alvin Sharpe created the modern doubloon for The School of Design (the proper name of the Rex Organization). According to the krewe history, in January of 1959 Sharpe arrived at the offices of the captain of the krewe with a handful of aluminum discs. Upon entering the office, he threw the doubloons into the captain's face... to prove that they would be safe to throw from the floats. Standard krewe doubloons usually portray the Krewe's emblem, name, and founding date on one side, and the theme and year of the parade and ball on the other side. Royalty and members of the court may throw specialty doubloons, such as the special Riding Lieutenant doubloons given out by men on horseback in the Rex parade. In the last decade, krewes have minted doubloons specific to each float. Krewes also mint special doubloons of cloisonné or pure silver for its members. They never throw these from the floats. Original Rex doubloons are valuable, but it is nearly impossible for aficionados to find a certified original doubloon. The School of Design did not begin dating their doubloons until a few years after their introduction.
The flambeau ("flahm-bo" meaning flame-torch) was originally a carrier that served as a beacon for parade goers to better enjoy the spectacle of night festivities. The first flambeau carriers were slaves. Today, the flambeaux are a direct connection to the original days of Carnival and a valued tradition. Many view the flambeaux as a kind of performance art, a valid assessment given the wild gyrations and flourishes common to experienced flambeau carriers. Parades that commonly feature flambeau carriers include Babylon, Chaos, d'Etat, Druids, Hermes, Muses, Orpheus, Proteus, Saturn, and Sparta. Many of the flambeau carriers today are descended from long lines of carriers, some going back to the days of slavery. Flambeaux are powered by naphtha, a highly flammable aromatic. It is tradition when the flambeau carriers pass to toss quarters to them in thanks for carrying the lights of Carnival.
The first week of January in New Orleans starts the King Cake season. King Cakes first appeared after 1872, when the Rex Krewe selected the Mardi Gras colors (purple, green and gold). The traditional King Cake is a coffee cake, and is oblong and braided. It is iced with a simple icing and covered with purple, green and gold sugar. Each cake contains a hidden bean or small plastic baby, and custom tells that whoever finds it must either buy the next King Cake or throw the next King Cake Party. One Mardi Gras organization uses the King Cake tradition to choose the queen of its annual ball. Hundreds of King Cake parties are thrown every year and hundreds of thousands of cakes are made, bought and eaten every year.
One of the most famous and the most sought after throws, is the Zulu Coconut, also known as the Golden Nugget, and the Mardi Gras Coconut. The coconut is mentioned as far back as 1910, where they were given in a natural "hairy" state. The coconut is "thrown" as a cheap alternative, especially in 1910 when the bead throws were made of glass. Before the Krewe of Zulu threw their famous coconuts, they threw walnuts that were painted gold. This is where the name "Golden Nugget" originally came from. It is thought that Zulu switched from walnuts to coconuts in the early 1920s when a local painter, Lloyd Lucus started to paint coconuts. Most of the coconuts have two decorations. The first is painted gold with added glitter, and the second is painted like the famous black Zulu faces. In 1988, the city forbade Zulu from throwing coconuts due to the risk of injury; they are now handed to onlookers rather than thrown. In the year 2000, a local electronics engineer, Willie Clark, introduced an upgraded version of the classic, naming them Mardi Gras Coconuts. These new coconuts were first used by the club, in 2002, to confer the souvenirs on royalty, and city notables.
Women showing their breasts have been documented since 1889, when the Times-Democrat decried the “degree of immodesty exhibited by nearly all female masqueraders seen on the streets,” the practice was mostly limited to tourists in the upper Bourbon Street area. In the crowded streets of the tourist section of the French Quarter, generally avoided by locals, flashers on balconies cause crowds to form on the streets, giving ample opportunity for pickpockets to steal from distracted and intoxicated onlookers.
This article is a travel topic.
The festival is rooted in the ancient European Carnival traditions. It marks the final celebrations before the period of fasting during Lent in the Roman Catholic Religion, although New Orleans Carnival is enjoyed by people of any belief.
For locals, "Mardi Gras" strictly speaking is only the last and biggest day of the Carnival season, "Fat Tuesday". Visitors less clear on this distinction sometimes call the whole New Orleans Carnival season "Mardi Gras". The final big day is thus sometimes called by the (technically redundant) name "Mardi Gras Day".
After spotty earlier festivities, parades roll most nights starting 2 weekends before Mardi Gras. Things kick into high gear the weekend before Mardi Gras, when the population of New Orleans more than doubles (book a room well in advance!). There's an all day party along the riverfront downtown on Lundi Gras ("Fat Monday", the day before Mardi Gras) followed by more parades that evening, and just when you think things couldn't get more wild, the climax of Mardi Gras takes Carnival to an entirely new level.
Wearing a mask or costume on Mardi Gras Day is highly recommended by Mardi Gras veterans; one becomes part of the party, rather than just watching it. Veterans also start the party on Mardi Gras morning, even if you aren't usually a morning person. Mardi Gras officially ends promptly at midnight Tuesday.
The next day is Ash Wednesday (nicknamed locally "Trash Wednesday" from the debris left in the streets from the parties), the start of Lent. Wearing Mardi Gras beads during Lent will mark you as a tourist; time to take them off.
Mardi Gras parades are a big attraction. Many locals have their favorites and by not following the crowds, you can often get a better perspective on the Big Easy.
The parades are put on by private organizations known as "krewe"s; they do not receive any government or corporate sponsorship.
Watching a parade in New Orleans is a participatory party; crowds dance to the music of the bands and clamour for "throws". Throws are the trinkets thrown from krewe members on the floats to the crowd, including plastic beads and cups (often decorated with the emblem of the krewe), "dubloons" - small aluminum discs like a souvenir coin, and various toys and gee-gaws.
Pick up the Mardi Gras Guide magazine, or consult the newspapers for parade schedules and routes. Note that many of the smaller parades, marching krewes, neighborhood pageants, Mardi Gras Indians, etc are usually not listed in these schedules.
The majoritiy of the parades follow a standard route, starting Uptown at Napoleon Avenue and going down St. Charles Avenue to the Central Business District then on to Canal Street at the upper border of the French Quarter.
There are sizable parades two weekends before Mardi Gras, then every night starting the Wednesday before Mardi Gras. There are also several parades in a row during the day the Saturday and Sunday before Mardi Gras. The parades on Mardi Gras Day are in the morning and mid day.
The nights of the week leading up to Mardi Gras, in addition to the days on the weekend before Mardi Gras, have numerous parades. In addition to the parades on the standard routes, interesting off-beat parades include:
There are dozens of small neighborhood krewes and walking clubs, including:
Mardi Gras Indians, Bourbon Street, Lundi Gras in Waldenburg Park, Arrival of Kings of the Zulus and Rex, costume parties, balls, block parties
While some visitors think of Mardi Gras as a "Girls Gone Wild" event, most of the city's Mardi Gras celebration is kid-friendly family fun. Stay away from the rowdies on Bourbon Street; catch the parades Uptown on Saint Charles Avenue anywhere above Lee Circle up to Napoleon Avenue (Note: on Mardi Gras Day, Zulu parades only on the portion of the route from Jackson Avenue down). Most kids love the excitement of catching the beads; for safety just make sure they don't try to run up too close to the floats. On Lundi Gras (the Monday before Mardi Gras), the festivities in Waldenberg Park (along the Mississippi by the upper French Quarter just below Canal Street) includes a children's stage. On Mardi Gras dress the family in matching costumes to be thrown extra beads and have extra fun.