The winter holiday season is just ending and it will soon be time for the kickoff of Carnival, culminating on Tuesday February 24, 2009 with Mardi Gras. Carnival is the gradually-building season of celebration beginning on Twelfth Night, January 6 every year and ending with Fat Tuesday and the beginning of the Lenten Season.
While in the United States Mardi Gras is synonymous with New Orleans, Carnival is celebrated throughout the world, most notably in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rio’s Carnival is a four-day celebration, tracing its roots to the 1723 introduction of the Entrudo. A simple, fun celebration focused around getting everyone soaking wet, people took to the streets and splashed each other with water. From these simple roots, Carnaval (as the Portuguese spell it) is now a four-day festival culminating on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.
Some may be surprised to learn that New Orleans was not the first city in the United States to celebrate Mardi Gras. That distinction belongs to Mobile, AL. Fort Louis de la Louisiane was established 60 miles south of New Orleans in 1702, and in 1703 Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated the very first Mardi Gras.
Today, Mardi Gras brings to many minds drunken revelry on Bourbon Street, complete with beads and parades. To New Orleans’ natives, Mardi Gras is a family event. Beads and parades, along with simple parties and elaborate balls fill the weeks of Carnival. Neighbors and friends good-naturedly compete to find who has the best King Cake recipe. Parade viewers stake out the best viewing spots along the routes and create elaborate ladders to better the view and collecting of throws, many times camping out overnight for the better parades. Families register their newborns with Mardi Gras krewes in hopes of a highly-coveted spot on the court’s float during a parade many years in the future.
I spent some wonderful time working in Louisiana and Mississippi and can personally attest that the entire coastal region shuts down in celebration of Mardi Gras. In the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, most small towns throughout Louisiana host Mardi Gras parades and balls. Schools and many businesses are closed on Fat Tuesday. No matter the socio-economic state of any given town or organization, Mardi Gras is a time of celebration.
There are two great online resources for visitors and new transplants to New Orleans regarding everything Mardi Gras. The first is www.mardigrasneworleans.com . This site gives answers to all the questions. For more personal attention, the best answers are from the members of the forums at www.nola.com . Anyone visiting New Orleans would find time well-spent to converse with the locals to get a real idea of what is expected and appreciated.