If you were born in New Orleans, Mardi Gras, one of the world's biggest parties, is in your bones, and you probably can't imagine living anywhere that doesn't celebrate the event. However, if you are a visitor, you might need some explanation and guidance.
French for "Fat Tuesday," Mardi Gras is always celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday, so the date changes every year. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and for Catholics in New Orleans, that means sacrifice, so Mardi Gras is the last bash before Lent. But in New Orleans, one day of partying is simply not enough.
The Carnival Season
Technically the Mardi Gras season, called Carnival, begins on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, with balls: elaborate, invitation-only, formal tableaus (with people in costume acting out a living picture using props). The royalty of the individual group or "krewe", one of the private clubs that put on Mardi Gras and Carnival-related events, is presented.
Mardi Gras Parade Details
Several types of parades start about two weeks before Mardi Gras day. Expenses of this monumental party are paid by the individual members of the krewes; there is no commercial sponsorship for Mardi Gras parades.
Some parades are put on by "old line" krewes, the traditionalists who have the tableau balls, and a king and queen elected from within the group. These krewes go back to the 1800s and are credited for establishing the Mardi Gras traditions still occurring today in New Orleans.
The krewe of Rex presents the oldest of these parades, dating back to 1872. Rex parades on Mardi Gras day and the King of Rex is the official King of Carnival.
The parades put on by the more recently-founded "Super Krewes" are much larger in scale, with floats often several times the size of those in the old line parades. In lieu of balls, the Super Krewes have lavish parties immediately after their parades and feature celebrity kings. The Super Krewe parades start the Saturday before Mardi Gras with Endymion, followed by Bacchus the next night. Both founded in the late 1960s, Bacchus and Endymion are the "granddaddies" of the Super Krewes. Lundi Gras (Fat Monday) is the day before Mardi Gras, and Orpheus, one of the newer Super Krewes, parades that night.
Almost all of the New Orleans parades head down St. Charles Avenue and into the Central Business District. The one notable exception is Endymion, which travels into the Central Business District from Canal Street, but in 2020 will have a route change, heading to the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
Very few parades actually go into the French Quarter because the historic section of town has narrow streets. To see a parade, you have to leave the older area, or at least go to Canal Street at the edge of the French Quarter.
Mardi Gras Throws
One thing all the parades have in common is that the riders throw festive items to the crowd, such as Mardi Gras beads. Visitors may also receive plastic cups and doubloons (gold coins) with the date and the krewe's theme for the year. Some of the parades have throws unique to the krewe, such as the krewe of Zulu, who makes hand-painted and beautifully-decorated coconuts. Although city law makes it illegal to throw these, the riders are allowed to hand one to you. A Zulu coconut is probably the highest prized throw in Mardi Gras and if you're lucky enough to get one, you get bragging rights.
Activities for Children
Contrary to popular belief, Mardi Gras is child-friendly. Most New Orleans families who don't mind crowds are on St. Charles Avenue somewhere between Napoleon Avenue and Lee Circle, where you will find picnics and barbecues all along the parade route.
Float riders carry special throws, like stuffed animals, for the small children along this part of the parade route. Because this is traditionally a family area, the mood is friendly and G-rated.
Smaller children are perched on special seats bolted onto ladders (found at hardware stores) to make sure they're safe and able to see what's going on. By law, these structures must be as far back from the curb as they are high, and an adult must stand on the ladder with the child.
It All Ends at Midnight
No matter what goes on during the carnival season and specifically on Mardi Gras day on Bourbon Street, it all ends exactly at midnight, when Lent starts and the party is over. Mounted police leading a parade of large street cleaners clear Bourbon Street, so it's best to be on your way before midnight rather than get caught up in the fray.