I have always enjoyed and appreciated Mardi Gras, and all the ideas behind it. But it wasn’t until after my trip to New Orleans that I fell deeply in love with Carnival season and Mardi Gras. On the last day of the trip, I went to Mardi Gras World. This is where my carnival obsession started because they started the tour with a video about the origins of Mardi Gras. Then walked around the building seeing all the floats. There were even some people there working on the floats. Everyone was so great, and answered any questions we had about the float and the construction of the floats.
History of Mardi Gras
I also thought Mardi Gras was a New Orleans thing, but it actually got started in Mobile, Alabama in the United States. But before that, it can be traced back to medieval Europe. Mobile created a secret society, similar to Krewes today, that celebrates “Boeuf Gras Society.”
New Orleans was established in 1718, and by the 1730s Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans. Mardi Gras first started with elegant society balls mostly masquerades. The masks were designed to keep identity a secret so high members of society could talk and enjoy the company of others outside their “status.” Masks were also a way for people to conceal their identity and be who they really wanted to be without people judging. It wasn’t until the 1830s, that “parades” started. They had carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras.
The first Mardi Gras parade was in 1857 by Krewe of Comus, and the tradition has carried on ever since. There is no “official” theme to Mardi Gras, but the Krewes come up with a theme for their float. Most of the time it is kept secret until the parade. Some krewes have royal courts during the Carnival and Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras colors: Purple, Green, and Gold. Rex, the King of Carnival, selected the colors and assigned meaning. Purple for justice. Green for faith. Gold for power.
Carnival and Mardi Gras have been used interchangeably, but they are actually 2 different things. Carnival season starts January 6th. It’s 12 days after Christmas and continues until Fat Tuesday. It’s a Christian festive season that occurs before Lent. Some people refer to it as Pre-Lent. I didn’t know that, but it makes sense if you view it from a calendar perspective. Carnival season is a time to eat, drink, and be happy before starting the fasting and sacrifice of Lent.
Lundi Gras is the Monday before Mardi Gras. I think I have heard of it but I didn’t remember all the details. But it’s when Rex, the King of Carnival, comes to town “meets” with elected officials, and ends with the mayor of New Orleans giving him the keys to the city. Rex has complete control of the city for the next 24 hours.
According to locals, Mardi Gras is the last 2 weekends leading up to Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. That Tuesday or Fat Tuesday is considered the last day of Carnival season. The dates will change based on the date of Easter. Ash Wednesday is 46 days from Easter, so the dates might change year to year.
The kickoff to Carnival is Twelfth Night which is considered the end of Christmas festivities. It’s also the start of Carnival Season. Parades start today, and it’s officially king cake season. There are more than 70 parades in a 12-day period leading up to Mardi Gras. But there are so many parades starting on January 6th leading up to Mardi Gras. Which is amazing if you can’t make the big celebration day, you can still experience Carnival season.
New Orleans has tons of events throughout the whole season. There are so many different parades with different krewes throwing beads and signature items. I was doing research for this post, and found there is a Family Gras in a suburb of New Orleans (Metairie). That is the 2 weekends before Fat Tuesday. It’s a family friend version of Mardi Gras.
Some of the Super Krewes have their own balls and events. Krewe of Endymion rents out the Superdome at the end of their parade route to celebrate. Each year is different but always has tons of celebrities and singers. Krewe of Orpheus has a black-tie event at the Convention Center called Orpheuscapade.
Traditions are plenty during Carnival and Mardi Gras Season.
- King Cake: Find that baby for good luck
- Krewe Throws: Each crew has a throw specific to them. Krewe of Iris throws sunglasses. Alla has amazing genie lamps (bucket list item), Muses has shoes. I don’t know the name of the Krewe, but there is one that throws bras that have the best designs on them.
- Phunny Phorty Fellows: a ban of Twelfth Night revelers annual ride on the St. Carles Streetcar
- Masks: escape society and class constraints. By wearing a mask, you can be whoever you want to be. Masks are required by law for Float riders
- Doubloons: Spanish Gold Coin. If you find one grab it. Rumor has it, your life will never be the same. If you are lucky to get a coin from the Bacchus Krewe that has the image of the celebrity king KEEP IT!
- Go Cups: Not necessarily a tradition, but Louisanna has an open container law. It took me some time to get use, but after a day I was a local. It was a weird feeling to be walking around with a drink in my hand.
- Skull & Bones: North Side Skull & Bones Gang wake up early on Mardi Gras day going door to door, waking up the town of Treme sending a message of peace.
During the video at Mardi Gras World, I learned that each float is created by a Krewe. There are several types of Krewes based on a variety of different things. I didn’t even realize the amount of krewes that New Orleans has. There are some all-men, all-women, etc. Krewes are usually named after Greek, Roman, and Egyptian Mythology. Some are named after the neighborhood where they parade. Some Krewes are named “super Krewes” which usually means they have over 1,000 active dues-paying members and have at least 500 riders for it’s parade each carnival. Some of the “bigger” named Krewes are Bacchus (first super krewe), Krewe of Muses (all-female super krewe), and Krewe of Iris (oldest all-female krewe).
Some Krewes are based on interest like Krewe of Chewbacchus that has a star wars theme and inspired events during the Carnival season. There are Krewes through the Shiners who ride in buggies and horses. Knight of Babylon loves tradition (krewe after my heart) and having the same float design. They have used the same float for the past 70 years. Also who wouldn’t love Krewe du Pooch founded in 2020 to support animal rescue organizations. They have dog walking in the parade on the Mandeville Lakefront. Krewe of Barkus makes the dogs the center of the parade with their humans acting as escorts.
I don’t know what or why I have this obsession with Carnival or Mardi Gras season, but I do. I think it’s because it’s a time that you can be yourself. Whoever you want to be, you can be that during this time. It’s a time to overindulge and appreciate everything you are able to do. Maybe I’m getting to sentimental or deep for the season, but it makes sense to me. I’m going to enjoy these next few weeks of Carnival season from a distance.
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