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A Guide to Famous Mardi Gras Traditions

Home City Tours A Guide to Famous Mardi Gras Traditions

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What is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras is world famous, but most people don’t know much about it. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is a lot more than just an extravagant one-day party – it’s a cornerstone of culture and community, as well as an anchor for the local economy.

For many New Orleanians, Mardi Gras traditions are a deeply important spiritual celebration of life in the Crescent City. While the origins of Mardi Gras lie in the medieval Catholic calendar, today it is as popular among secular communities as it is among religious ones. The official, time-honored colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold.

When is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras takes place on “Fat Tuesday”, the designated day of decadence before Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins. However, the Mardi Gras season – known locally simply as “Carnival” – begins over a month prior on Twelfth Night, the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

From this night on through midnight on Mardi Gras Day, a casual trickle of events gradually turns into a roaring river of parades, balls and parties, consuming more and more of public life in the city as the weeks wear on. Mardi Gras does not occur on the same calendar date every year, although it is always on a Tuesday in February or March.

Mardi Gras Parades

Parades are the center of public Mardi Gras traditions. In the final days of Carnival, major streets like St. Charles Avenue are blocked off all day so that the dazzling processions of floats, dancers and marching bands can make their way across town, greeting attendees with music and Mardi Gras beads. However, many parades are smaller affairs that bring their festive spirits to residential areas or the narrow corridors of the French Quarter.

Krewes

The organizations that present parades are known as “Krewes.” Most Krewes parade every year, establishing themselves as annual Mardi Gras institutions. Some Krewes have even been riding since the 19th century, while others are just a few years old. Most older Krewes base their themes and identities around icons from ancient mythology and history. Newer Krewes typically create a theme around popular interests like dogs or sail boats. Some of the most famous Krewes are Rex and Zulu, both of whom roll on the morning of Mardi Gras Day.

Throws

Mardi Gras beads may be the most common and widely recognized symbols of the Carnival, yet they are only a small sample among the many gifts that participants throw or distribute to spectators in response to their joyful chanting and eye-catching outfits. Other classic throws include cups, doubloon coins, toys, and candies. The Krewe of Zulu, a legendary African American Krewe that has been parading for over 100 years, is famous for handing out golden coconuts.

Mardi Gras Costumes

Parade goers pose for a photo in colorful mardi gras costumes
Image Credit: neworleans.com
Costumes play a huge role in the intricate details of Mardi Gras season traditions. During parades, riders on the floats wear synchronized costumes that often include an element of mystery with masks to conceal the individual’s identity. These unique costumes are also popular among parade goers, particularly those who hope to catch the riders’ eyes in order to win Mardi Gras beads and other special throws.

Mardi Gras Balls

Not all Mardi Gras traditions are public. Lavish costume balls have always been central to Mardi Gras. These balls feature ornate costumes, theatrical spectacles, and copious amounts of food and drink. Mardi Gras balls can take place anywhere from a Krewe member’s home to the Convention Center or the Superdome. While most balls are private affairs for Krewe members, community organizations and their guests, some are ticketed and open to the public.

Get to Know the City Before Your First Parade

Mardi Gras is guaranteed to be fun, but the more you know about its history and New Orleans itself, the more fun you’ll have. Taking a New Orleans bus tour will provide you with the opportunity to familiarize yourself with important Mardi Gras settings, that will come to life before your very eyes once the parades begin to roll.

A New Orleans city tour provides guests with their own educational journey down parade routes like St. Charles Avenue, Canal Street, and Orleans Avenue while providing historical context for neighborhoods like the Garden District and the French Quarter. Book your New Orleans City Bus Tour with Cajun Encounters today!

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