February is winding down, and it's nearly time for New Orleans to revive its most famous annual tradition. The legacy of Mardi Gras stretches back to 1857, and since then, some 1,800 parades have brought the party outdoors onto the streets of the Big Easy, attracting roughly one million visitors to the city for the festivities every year. But what is the exact nature of this festival, and how best can you enjoy it? We checked in with a couple of the most informed Mardi Gras sources -- Arthur Hardy, publisher of the Mardi Gras Guide, and Kelly Schulz, VP of Communications and PR, New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and built you this primer -- read on the make the most of your Carnival trip -- and click through to our New Orleans guides to start planning your trip.
What are the origins of Mardi Gras in New Orleans?
Arthur Hardy: French Canadian explorer Pierre Lemoyne d'Iberville and his men sailed up from the Mississippi River's mouth and pitched camp 60 miles south of the future site of New Orleans. The date was March 3, 1699. Mardi Gras was being celebrated in Paris. Perhaps feeling a little whimsical, Iberville named the spot Point du Mardi Gras and christened the adjoining channel Bayou du Mardi Gras. In the mid-1700s Mardi Gras was celebrated in private homes and on plantations. In the early 19th century maskers took to the streets. Not until 1857 was the first Mardi Gras parade presented.
Kelly Schulz: The Europeans brought with them carnival customs to New Orleans and Creole society was soon masking and dancing at private balls while costumed revelers roamed the streets. The year 1837 marked the first documented parade of masked revelers in New Orleans. Over time, Mardi Gras has continued to expand, but its purpose has stayed the same -- to cast cares aside and celebrate in grandiose fashion.
Who organizes the parade and events today?
KS: Many people and organizations are involved in Mardi Gras today, but private krewes [see below] are largely responsible for the parades, pageantry, costumes and balls. Krewes are private social organizations, each bearing a mythological name and symbol, with Comus, Proteus and Rex being some of the oldest.
What is the best way to have an authentic Mardi Gras experience?
AH: Plan to be in New Orleans from the Friday before Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), until the day after (Ash Wednesday). Spend some time in the French Quarter where there are no Mardi Gras parades but there is a lot of activity. View as many parades as possible, because each is different. Dress comfortably and leave valuables at home.
KS: Mardi Gras is a an event and a spirit that must be experienced to be understood. Mardi Gras Day is a legal holiday in New Orleans. There are many different ways and places to celebrate, from the more family-friendly viewing areas along St. Charles or the fantastic revelry in the French Quarter. The best way to have an authentic Mardi Gras is to bring your family and friends and simply go with the flow. Pick a meeting spot, bring snacks and beverages to hold you over while waiting for the parade, then join in the merriment.
A little Mardi Gras-specific vocabulary, courtesy of New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau:
King Cakes -- A party staple from January 6 through Mardi Gras day, the cake is named for the three kings who visited the Christ Child and whose feast, the Epiphany, is celebrated on January 6, the Twelfth Night after Christmas. Traditionally, the cake is a brioche pastry baked in a circle, suggesting a crown (although for convenience, large ones are oval). They are sprinkled with gem-like sugar crystals in the official Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold. A plastic baby (symbol of the Christ Child), or in some cases a bean, is baked inside. By custom, the one who finds it throws the next king cake party. Lately, the brioche recipe has been supplemented by a coffee-cake ring alternative. French settlers brought the gâteau des rois to Louisiana in the 18th century. Their original round, flaky pastry pie filled with almond crème and topped by a paper crown is now making a comeback in the French pastry shops around the city.
Krewes -- Non-profit Mardi Gras organizations and many are named after mythological figures such as Aphrodite, Eros, Hermes, Pegasus and Thor. Each krewe is completely autonomous and there is no overall coordinator of Carnival activities. The secrecy with which some of the older krewes cloak themselves is part of the mystique of Mardi Gras. Several do not reveal the theme of the parade until the night of the event, and the identity of their royalty is never publicized.
Doubloons -- Commemorative coins struck for individual krewes, designed with the krewe crest or emblem on one side and the parade and/or ball theme on the other. Some also imprint mottoes; for Rex, it's Pro bono publico, "For the common good." The Krewe of Rex tossed the first parade doubloons in 1960. Now usually made of aluminum, some have been minted of bronze, sterling and real gold, given as favors during balls. Rex alone has minted over 18 million doubloons since 1960, and now tosses out about 600,000 on Mardi Gras Day.
Photos by Cheryl Gerber.