Mardi Gras in the US and the city of New Orleans are complementary and contributory. Generally associated with a huge street party, it is a crazy festival of beads and booze and has now become an iconic carnival of the city. Apart from New Orleans, today it is celebrated in many countries around the world. The loony festival takes place before lent, the last day before giving up all sinful pleasures. It is always the day before the Ash Wednesday, which is the start of Lent and always on the Tuesday that is 47 days before Easter. In many areas the celebration is extended beyond just the single day, since in those areas the term Mardi Gras stands for the whole period of activity related to the celebratory events. However, the New Orleans Carnival season is not like the traditional preparation for the start of the Catholic season of Lent.
The Carnival season in New Orleans, which refers to the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, officially starts after the Twelfth Night, on January 6 every year and lasts more than a month. Every year, the heady parties, exciting parades and unbridled fun kick into high gear on the Thursday before Mardi Gras and the colourful festival enchants and intoxicates everybody with ravish costumes, electrifying music events, interesting parade of the floats, and of course, the traditional bead throwing.
It is believed that, Mardi Gras arrived in North America as a French Catholic tradition with the Le Moyne brothers. According to the available record, the first Mardi Gras was celebrated in Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi River, in Plaquemines Parish on 2 March 1699, by the colonial administrator and explorer Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, his younger brother and repeated governor of French Louisiana Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville and their men. However, the date of the first celebration of the festivities in New Orleans is unknown. Nevertheless, 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. Consequently, New Orleans' first and oldest Krewe, the Mystick Krewe of Comus, was founded by them. Even today, the parades are organised by different Krewes. Mardi Gras was declared as a legal holiday in Louisiana in 1875. Green, gold and purple are the colours traditionally associated with Mardi Gras in New Orleans. During the lead-up to their inaugural parade in 1872, the colours were first specified by the Rex organization and they suggested that the balconies be draped in banners of these colors. But, it is unknown why these specific colors were chosen.
The central attraction of Mardi Gras is the parades, headed by the ‘Kings’ and the ‘Queens’ leading a flotilla of garish float. The parades are organised by private concerns, known as Krewes. Endymion, Bacchus and Orpheus are known as the super Krewes, who have the biggest floats with fantastic special effects. In fact, those organizations are super in every respect, including their massive throws, which the float riders toss or ‘throw’ to the crowd. The crowd, in turn, becomes almost wild and crazy for the throws. They beg, implore, insist and often the female enthusiasts even dare to bare their breasts to the throwers in lieu of a handful throw. However, the throws are not that costly. The common throws include cheap strings of colorful plastic beads, inexpensive toys or the doubloons, which are nothing but aluminum or wooden dollar-sized coins usually impressed with the logo of the particular krewe. Gradually, people lost interest in small, cheap beads, often leaving them where they landed on the ground. Consequently, more sophisticated throws began to replace the simple metallic beads. Today, fiber optic beads and LED-powered prizes have become the craze of the day.
Major Krewes follow the same route and same parade schedule each year. Traditionally, during the Carnival, many tourists prefer to stay on Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, but the major Carnival parades have never entered the French Quarter since 1972 because of its narrow streets and overhead obstructions.
Costumes and masks are frequently worn on Mardi Gras, as laws against concealing the identity with a mask are suspended for the day. Masquerading makes Mardi Gras more fun and interesting. The temporary anonymity gives people the much wanted license to go out of the usual way, to go out of character and do unusual things like sing and shriek, drink to heart’s content and dance with strangers on the neutral ground and get wild. Mardi Gras officially ends on Tuesday and the culmination of the festival is the wicked mayhem of Mardi Gras Day, when all inhibitions are let loose. It is also known as Fat Tuesday, after the end of which comes the Ash Wednesday, locally known as the Trash Wednesday. It is regarded as trash, as it is the first day of Lent, when abstinence prevails, making Fat Tuesday the ultimate excuse to become uninhibited and unbridled.
Every year the event continues to get bigger and bigger, when hundreds of thousands of people flock to New Orleans each February, and generate an estimated $1 billion economic impact.