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New Orleans Mardi Gras


New Orleans Mardi Gras

Revelers on St. Charles Avenue, 2007

Mardi Gras (; Louisiana French pronunciation: ; French pronunciation: ​; meaning "Fat Tuesday") is an annual Carnival celebration in the Southeast United States in New Orleans, LA.

The Carnival season, a variation of the traditional manner of preparing for the start of the Christian liturgical 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; which at one time was when parties for Southern Society women, débutante balls, were arranged.

Celebrations are concentrated for about two weeks before and through Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French), also known as Shrove Tuesday, 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. Neighboring communities also hold Carnival celebrations.

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 colorful plastic beads, doubloons (aluminum or wooden dollar-sized coins usually impressed with a krewe logo), decorated plastic throw cups, Moonpies, and small inexpensive toys. Major krewes follow the same parade schedule and route each year.

While many tourists center their Carnival season activities on Bourbon Street and the French Quarter in New Orleans and Dauphin. In New Orleans, 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. Exposing body parts, or "flashing", in an effort to catch more beads or throws, is frowned upon by the police department and can be grounds for a ticket or an arrest. Though it is a growing trend for uninhibited, mostly younger women to show their breasts, this practice mostly only takes place on and around Bourbon Street in the French Quarter.

"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 specific day.


  • History 1
  • Traditional colors 2
  • Contemporary Mardi Gras 3
    • Weekend before Mardi Gras Day 3.1
    • Lundi Gras 3.2
    • Mardi Gras 3.3
  • Costumes and masks 4
  • Beads 5
  • Other Mardi Gras traditions 6
    • Social clubs 6.1
    • Doubloons 6.2
    • Flambeau carriers 6.3
    • Rex 6.4
    • Mardi Gras icons 6.5
    • New Orleans Zulu or Mardi Gras Coconut 6.6
    • Ojen liqueur 6.7
  • Exposure and Mardi Gras 7
  • End of New Orleans Mardi Gras 8
  • Additional photographs 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


Arrival of Rex, monarch of Mardi Gras, as seen on an early 20th-century postcard
Rex, presented with freedom of the city; early 20th century postcard
Rex in procession down Canal Street; postcard from around 1900
Mardi Gras maskers; circa 1915 postcard
The Rex pageant, Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans, La., c. 1907

The true origins of Mardi Gras can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome, when early Christians with Pagan roots feasted and celebrated ahead of the somber days of Lent. 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 2, 1699. Iberville, Bienville, and their men celebrated it as part of an observance of Catholic practice.

The date of the first celebration of the festivities in New Orleans is unknown. A 1730 account by Marc-Antione Caillot notes celebrating with music and dance, masking and costuming (including cross-dressing). [1] 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. They 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:[1]

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.

In 1856 six businessmen gathered at a club room in New Orleans's French Quarter to organize a secret society to observe Mardi Gras with a formal parade. They founded New Orleans' first and oldest krewe, the [2]

In 1875 Louisiana declared Mardi Gras a legal state holiday.[3] 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.[3]

1972 was the last year in which large parades went through the narrow streets of the city's French Quarter section; larger floats, crowds, and fire safety concerns led the city government to prohibit parades in the Quarter. Major parades now skirt the French Quarter along 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 recall 1979 as 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.[4] Shortly after the law was passed, the city demanded that these krewes provide them with membership lists, contrary to the long-standing traditions of secrecy and the distinctly private nature of these groups. In protest—and because the city claimed the parade gave it jurisdiction to demand otherwise-private membership lists—the 19th-century krewes Comus and Momus stopped parading.[5] Proteus did parade in the 1992 Carnival season but also suspended its parade for a time, returning to the parade schedule in 2000.

Several organizations brought suit against the city, challenging the law as unconstitutional. 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.[6] The US Supreme Court refused to hear the city's appeal from this decision.

Today, New Orleans krewes operate under a business structure; membership is open to anyone who pays dues, and any member can have a place on a parade float.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in late 2005 caused a few people to question the future of the city's Mardi Gras celebrations. 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.

2006: A Knights of Chaos float satirizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for the failed levees in New Orleans

The 2006 New Orleans Carnival schedule included the Krewe du Vieux on its traditional route through Marigny and the French Quarter on February 11, the Saturday two weekends before Mardi Gras. There were several parades on Saturday, February 18, and Sunday the 19th a week before Mardi Gras. Parades followed daily from Thursday night through Mardi Gras. 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, as they have many times in the past. 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 their possessions, 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) and 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.

Traditional colors

Mardi Gras flag
Meaning of Colors
     Justice (purple)
     Power (gold)
     Faith (green)

The traditional colors of the New Orleans Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. All three colors were used by the Catholic Church throughout history and thus continued to be used in relation to Mardi Gras which was Catholic in origin.

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 simpler origin, having to do primarily with looking good.[7]

Contemporary Mardi Gras

Float on Magazine Street, 1996
Mounted Krewe Officers in the Thoth Parade, 1994

Each year the New Orleans Carnival season starts on January 6, called Twelfth Night. The Twelfth Night Revelers, New Orleans' second-oldest Krewe, hold a masked ball each year to mark the beginning of New Orleans' Carnival season. Many of Carnival's oldest societies, such as the Independent Strikers' Society, hold masked balls but no longer parade in public.

Mardi Gras season continues through Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday.

Weekend before Mardi Gras Day

The population of New Orleans more than doubles during the five days before Mardi Gras Day, in anticipation of the biggest celebration.

Wednesday night begins with Druids, and is followed by the Mystic Krewe of Nyx, the newest all-female Krewe. Nyx is famous for their highly decorated purses, and has reached Super Krewe status since their founding in 2011.

Thursday night starts off with another all-women's parade featuring the Krewe of Muses. The parade is relatively new, but its membership has tripled since its start in 2001. It is popular for its throws (highly sought-after decorated shoes and other trinkets) and themes poking fun at politicians and celebrities.

Friday night is the occasion of the large Krewe of Hermes and satirical Krewe D'État parades, ending with one of the fastest-growing krewes, the Krewe of Morpheus.[8] There are several smaller neighborhood parades like the Krewe of Barkus and the Krewe of OAK.

Several daytime parades roll on Saturday (including Krewe of Tucks and Krewe of Isis) and on Sunday (Thoth, Okeanos, and Krewe of Mid-City).

The first of the "super krewes," Endymion, parades on Saturday night, with the celebrity-led Bacchus parade on Sunday night.

Lundi Gras

Monday was recently declared to be 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 Riverfront at the foot of Canal Street, where an all-day party is staged.

Uptown parades start with one of New Orleans' most prestigious organizations, the Krewe of Orpheus, which is considered less prestigious as it draws a significant portion of its membership from outside of New Orleans.

Mardi Gras

The celebrations begin early on Mardi Gras, which can fall on any Tuesday between February 3 and March 9 (depending on the date of Easter, and thus of Ash Wednesday).[9]

In New Orleans, uptown, the Zulu parade rolls first, followed by the Jefferson City Buzzards, the Lyons Club, the Irish Channel Corner 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.

Costumes and masks

Reveler, Mardi Gras morning in the Bywater neighborhood, 2004

In New Orleans, 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. 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.


Mardi Gras beads

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.

Glass beads 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 float-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.[10] The publication of Redmon's book, Beads Bodies, and Trash, follows up on the documentary by providing an ethnographic analysis of the social harms, the pleasures, and the consequences of the toxicity that Mardi Gras beads produce.

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.

Other Mardi Gras traditions

Social clubs

The Carnival at New Orleans, 1885

New Orleans Social clubs play a very large part in the Mardi Gras celebration as hosts of many of the parades on or around Mardi Gras. The two main Mardi Gras parades, Zulu and Rex, are both social club parades. Zulu is a mostly African-American club and Rex is mostly Caucasian. Social clubs host Mardi Gras balls, starting in late January. At these social balls, the queen of the parade (usually a young woman between the ages of 18 and 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 to 18), and different divisions of younger children with small roles in the ball and parade, such as a theme-bearer.

Traditional old line Carnival royalty at the ball in grand splendor
Less formal neighborhood Carnival club ball at local bar room

In response to 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.[4][11] 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.[3]

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. Balls are held at a variety of venues in the city, large and small, depending on the size and budget of the organization. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the French Opera House was a leading venue for New Orleans balls. From the mid 20th century until Hurricane Katrina the Municipal Auditorim was the city's most famous site for Carnival balls. In more recent years, most are at the ballrooms of various hotels throughout the city. The largest "Super Krewes" use larger venues; Bacchus the Morial Convention Center and Endymion the Superdome.


One of the many Mardi Gras throws which krewes fling into the crowds,

  • Carnival New Orleans History of Mardi Gras with vintage and modern pictures
  • Mardi Gras Unmasked Definitive Mardi Gras and king cake histories
  • Web site affiliated with New Orleans' Times-Picayune newspaper
  • Mardi Gras 2014 celebration photos
  • at America’s Most Famous Party, 1938LIFEMardi Gras: - slideshow by Life magazine
  • Emphasizes the family and traditional aspects
  • Prof. Carl Nivale's Compleat Carnival Compendium and Mardi Gras Manual A family-friendly site from WWL-TV's historian Carl Nivale
  • Fashion plates featuring historic Mardi Gras costumes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art libraries
  • Mardi Gras beads, masks, and decorations

External links

  1. ^
  2. ^ All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History of New Orleans Carnival by Reid Mitchell. Harvard University Press:1995. ISBN 0-674-01622-X pg 25, 26
  3. ^ a b c d Sparks, R. American Sodom: New Orleans Faces Its Critics and an Uncertain Future. La Louisiane à la dérive. The École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales Coloquio - December 16, 2005.
  4. ^ a b Three centuries of Mardi Gras history. From: Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  5. ^ a b Deja Krewe. The Times-Picayune. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  6. ^ 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).
  7. ^
  8. ^ Krewe of Morpheus website
  9. ^ Mardi Gras dates
  10. ^ David Redmon (2008). Mardi Gras: Made in China. Culture Unplugged. Retrieved 2010-02-16.
  11. ^ Mardi Gras History. From: Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Cocktails", Ned Hémard, 2007Ojen, "Banana Republics and New Orleans Nostalgia
  15. ^ Dominique Mertens Impex. S.L., Ojén, aguardiente superior, official website, in Spanish
  16. ^ a b Shrum, W. and J. Kilburn. "Ritual Disrobement at Mardi Gras: Ceremonial Exchange and Moral Order". Social Forces, Vol. 75, No. 2. (Dec., 1996), pp. 423-458.


Additional photographs

Ash Wednesday (the day after Big Tuesday) is sometimes jokingly referred to as "Trash Wednesday" because of the amount of refuse left in the streets during the previous day's celebrations and excesses. The tons of garbage picked up by the sanitation department is a local news item, partly because it reflects the positive economic impact of tourist revenue.

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 Carnival is over, as it is the start of Lent, commencing with Ash Wednesday.

The formal end of New Orleans Mardi Gras arrives with the "Meeting of the Courts," a ceremony at which Rex and His Royal Consort, the King and Queen of Carnival, meet with Comus and his Queen, at the ball of the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium. Following Hurricane Katrina, the ball has been held in the Marriott Hotel.

End of New Orleans Mardi Gras

In the last decades of the 20th century, the rise in producing commercial videotapes catering to voyeurs helped encourage a tradition of women baring their breasts in exchange for beads and trinkets. Social scientists studying "ritual disrobement" found, at Mardi Gras 1991, 1,200 instances of body-baring in exchange for beads or other favors.[16]

Women showing their breasts during Mardi Gras has 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.[3][16] In the crowded streets of the French Quarter, generally avoided by locals on Mardi Gras Day, flashers on balconies cause crowds to form on the streets.

French Quarter coffee house, Mardi Gras afternoon, 2009

Exposure and Mardi Gras

Aguardiente de Ojén (es), or simply "ojen" ("OH-hen") as it is known in English, is a Spanish anisette traditionally consumed during the New Orleans Mardi Gras festivities.[14] In Ojén, the original Spanish town where it is produced, production stopped for years, but it started again in early 2014 by means of the distillery company Dominique Mertens Impex. S.L.[15]

Ojen liqueur

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.[5] The coconut is mentioned as far back as 1910, where they were given in a natural "hairy" state. The coconut was thrown as a cheap alternative, especially in 1910 when the bead throws were made of glass. Before the Krewe of Zulu threw 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, giving the souvenirs to royalty and city notables.

New Orleans Zulu or Mardi Gras Coconut

Revelers on Basin Street examine their parade catches, including a Zulu Coconut, 2009
  • Faces of Comedy and Tragedy
  • Feathered masks
  • Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler! (French: "Let the good times roll!")
  • Throw me something, Mister!

Mardi Gras icons

Each year in New Orleans, [13]


It is a tradition, when the flambeau carriers pass by during a parade, to toss quarters to them in thanks for carrying the lights of Carnival. In the 21st century, though, handing dollar bills is common.

Parades that commonly feature flambeaux include Babylon, Chaos, Le Krewe d'Etat, Druids, Hermes, Krewe of Muses, Krewe of Orpheus, Krewe of Proteus, Saturn, and Sparta. Flambeaux are powered by naphtha, a highly flammable aromatic.

Today, the flambeaux are a connection to the New Orleans version of Carnival and a valued contribution. Many people view flambeau-carrying as a kind of performance art – a valid assessment given the wild gyrations and flourishes displayed by experienced flambeau carriers in a parade. Many individuals are descended from a long line of carriers.

The flambeau ("flahm-bo" meaning flame-torch) carrier originally, before electric lighting, served as a beacon for New Orleans parade goers to better enjoy the spectacle of night parades. The first flambeau carriers were slaves.

Flambeau carriers

Carriers with lit flambeaux on Napoleon Avenue, just before the start of a parade, 2007
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