Behind the party that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans (NOLA for the initiated) is a captivating history interwoven with tradition and symbolism. This guide unmasks the culture and customs of the annual celebration so you can get the best out of your Carnival and experience the best of New Orleans.
Carnival begins each year on Christian celebrated Epiphany aka Twelfth Night aka Three Kings Day, January 6 – a fixed date. Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday” is the final day of the Carnival season and is a moveable date. It falls on Shrove Tuesday the day preceding Ash Wednesday – you follow? Put simply, Mardi Gras always falls 47 days before Easter Sunday.
Mardi Gras history and the first American krewe
Mardi Gras was originally a medieval European celebration that spread from Rome and Venice to the French House of Bourbons. French colonialists cast the net further and on the eve of Mardi Gras 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville landed 60 miles south of New Orleans. He dubbed the spot “Pointe du Mardi Gras” and went on to establish the settlement that became modern-day Mobile, where America’s first Mardi Gras was celebrated in 1703. The tradition continued and evolved in Mobile including the creation of a secret society akin to contemporary krewes – covert clubs whose undisclosed members are responsible for masked balls and parade floats among other Carnival traditions. Bienville later founded New Orleans in 1718 and the town had taken up the party reigns by the 1730’s.
Hand Grenades are a signature New Orleans cocktail, along with Hurricanes and Shark Attacks. These potent melon-flavoured concoctions first wet whistles during the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans’ bar the Tropical Isle. The recipe is secret and only five French Quarter establishments have the license to serve the one-and-only original in its trademark fluorescent green yard glass.
Hurricanes are generally accepted to have been created by Pat O’Brien in his eponymous bar during the 1940’s. The rum-based cocktail also contains passionfruit syrup and lime juice. Some say he was trying to get rid of an oversupply of rum, others suggest Caribbean rum was more accessible during WWII than European whiskey or cognac. Either way, the stormy drink took its name from the hurricane lamp-shaped glass it was served in.
The official cocktail of Louisiana is the Sazerac. It was first concocted in the French Quarter pharmacy of Creole apothecary Antoine Peychaud during the 1830’s. He used a family recipe for bitters and mixed it with cognac which was later substituted for rye whiskey due to availability. Absinthe also had its place in the original cocktail as a glass rinse (fancy bar person’s term for coating the inside of a glass), but since its 1912 ban in the US, Pernod or Herbsaint have been used instead.
Carnival season begins on January 6 “Three Kings Day” referring to the three wise men of nativity fame – so you can guess where the name of this cake came from. The plastic baby hidden inside the King Cake is a reference to God being revealed to the world through infant Jesus. The sweet cinnamon infused ring that is the hybrid of a coffee cake and a French pastry is thought to have arrived in New Orleans about 1870, from France. The elliptical cake is decorated in the NOLA Carnival colours of purple, green and gold. Before plastic babies infiltrated the dessert, coins, beans, nuts or peas were used. Whoever finds the hidden token in their slice is said to receive a year of good luck – or is next year’s party host and cake supplier.
Mardi Gras colours
The traditional colours of Mardi Gras were initiated by the Rex Krewe in 1872. The reasons the Rex King chose purple “justice”, gold “power”and green “faith,” are commonly thought to be the influence of visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich Romanoff. However recent research by a local historian debunks this theory and suggests that the colours were chosen according to the traditional rules and fashions of heraldry (coat of arms) and vexillology (flag design).
Masks were initially worn during Carnival to level out the playing field between the princes and paupers. The tradition allowed Mardi Gras participants to behave outside their usual social and class constraints, and mingle with those from the other side of the tracks. Krewe members who ride parade floats must wear a mask as dictated by an outdated Louisiana law, but riders seem to be happy to obey in the name of tradition. Conversely, for the general public masks, hoods and facial disguises are illegal in public places, except on the day of Mardi Gras.
New Orleans’ mixed cultural heritage makes for great food and some stunning architecture. Founded by the French, the Big Easy passed through forty years of Spanish rule on its way to becoming part of the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Hurricanes and fires demolished large parts of the city on several occasions, and it was rebuilt and repaired in the style of its governing nation and influential occupants at the time. Balconies and galleries embellished with filigree ironwork create some of the most picturesque streetscapes. They also make for vantage points to enjoy the festive crowd and toss throws during Carnival season.
French colonialists brought these fluffy, sweet choux pastries to Louisiana where they were absorbed into Creole cuisine. In New Orleans, they are served with a generous dusting of powdered sugar and are generally accompanied by a cafe au lait. Cafe du Monde has a reputation for the finest beignets in the Big Easy, but their popularity means you may have a long wait among other hungry travellers. Cafe Beignet’s are a close second, sans long queue. Beignets are a year-round treat in New Orleans (not just for Carnival) so enjoy them on any visit.
Buskers, Brass Bands and Blues
The Big Easy is well documented as the birthplace of jazz, and has produced a gifted crop of musicians over its history, which in turn attracted other musical talent from around the country. After parenting jazz, the Big Easy went on to feed the development of rhythm and blues, and later helped rock’n’roll learn how to walk. So it isn’t surprising that you can’t go far in this town without stumbling over a band or busker to play you a tune.
Bourbon St lies at the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. The street hugely popular with tourists and looked down upon by locals has historical merit and is an essential experience for any Big Easy visit. Up until the 1900’s, Rue Bourbon as it was first known when New Orleans was a French colony, was a residential street. During the 20th century, the red-light manner of Storyville district moved into Bourbon St, turning homes into a bars, restaurants and hotels that have been harbouring various brands of loose behaviour ever since. After delving into the road’s past in his book “Bourbon Street: A History,” geographer Richard Campanella declared “Bourbon Street is a totally authentic, only-in-New-Orleans phenomena – and a grand success. That’s hard for some people to swallow.”
Beads & Baubles
Throughout Carnival celebratory parades and balls take place and New Orleans gets dressed up for the occasion. The city wears an array of decorations in the traditional purple, green and gold Mardi Gras colours. Parade floats dispense innumerable “throws,” which are most commonly strings of plastic beads. “Throw me somethin’ mister,” is thing to say if you want some throws hurled your way. It is also common ritual to trade them with fellow revelers. As the number of colourful leis in circulation increases, you will find them strung on any available surface. Lamp posts, signs, fences and trees – anything is fair game. In addition to beads, other throws include doubloons, cups, frisbees, soft toy animals and various other cheap trinkets. In fact, Carnival produces a phenomonal amount of extra garabage for the city of New Orleans, so I encourage you to donate your beads for recycling once the party’s over.
I highly recommend experiencing Carnival season in New Orleans and exploring the fascinating history, culture and delicious cuisine of Louisiana.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,