Mardi Gras or Carnival Time is the bigest celebration in New Orleans, Louisiana. The yearly festival includes numerous events throughout the city, and is known as the biggest free party on earth.
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 every night 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 Day takes Carnival to an entirely new level.
Wearing a mask or costume on Mardi Gras Day is highly reccomended by Mardi Gras Veterans, one becomes part of the party, rather than just watching it. Veterans also start the party in the morning on Mardi Gras Day, even if you aren't usually a morning person. Mardi Gras 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 ignorant of local customs.
Date of Mardi Gras
2004 - 24 February
2005 - 8 February
2006 - 28 February
2007 - 20 February
2008 - 5 February
2009 - 24 February
2010 - 16 February
2011 - 8 March
2012 - 21 February
2013 - 12 February
2014 - 4 March
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 recieve any government or corporate sponsorship.
Watching a parade in New Orleans is a particpatory party; crowds dance to the music of the bands and clammor 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 souvenier coin, and various toys and gee-gaws.
Endymion - Saturday night before Mardi Gras
Bacchus - Sunday night before Mardi Gras. Krewe of Bacchus features national celebrity monarchs each year, and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors. (read crowded)
Orpheus - Monday night before Mardi Gras, known as "Lundi Gras" ("Fat Monday). Musician oriented krewe, Harry Connick Jr. is the Krewe captain.
Rex - Mardi Gras day after Zulu Founded in 1872, "Rex...King of Carnival" has been the international symbol of New Orleans Mardi Gras since the Krewe first appeared. Rex was the first Krewe to hold an organized daytime Parade and remains the main event Parade of Mardi Gras Day.
Other parades of interest
The nights of the week leading up to Mardi Gras, in addition to the days on the weekend before Mardi Gras, have numerous parades.
Krewe du Vieux Carre - several weeks before Mardi Gras, the earliest parade in the New Orleans Carnival calendar is noted for satirical and off color floats and costumes
Barkus: - 2 weekends before Mardi Gras the official unofficial dog parade in the French Quarter. Too fun, usually early in parade season before most tourists arrive. A non-profit organization, it raises funds every year to benefit local animal shelters and national humane societies.
Hermes: Founded in 1938 by a group of businessmen, the Krewe of Hermes takes its name from the Greek Messenger of the Gods and an updated golden statute of the sandaled and winged courier appears at the head of the procession. This Krewe was the first to introduce neon lighting as a means of float illumination to the Mardi Gras celebrations. With the withdrawal from the Parade Schedule of Comus, Momus and Proteus, Hermes became the oldest traditional night parade.
There are dozens of small neighborhood krewes and walking clubs, including:
Society of Saint Anne - marching club through the Bywater, Marigny, and French Quarter neighborhoods on Mardi Gras morning, with some of the most elaborate and creative costumes seen.
Krewe of Kosmic Debris - one of the most informal krewes; if you play a musical instrument that can be played in the street you can show up in costume and jam on dixieland standards as the Kosmic Debris roams from bar to bar in the French Quarter, starting on Frenchmen Street at noon on Mardi Gras Day
Mystical Krewe of Chartreuse (when, where?) Headed by some of the wildest folk in living history, do not miss the parade named for the liquor made from 130 plants and herbs by monks. This will not be in other tour books and is so drunken and raucous you will run home crying if you're not careful. You have been warned.
Krewe of Dead Elvis
Krewe of Dreux - one of the largest alternative Mardi Gras celebrations, out in Gentilly on the Saturday afternoon before Mardi Gras