Internet MardiGras Guide

2. Basics 2.1 What is Mardi Gras? Carnival?

"Mardi Gras" literally means "Fat Tuesday" in French. The day is called "Fat Tuesday" because it is the last day before Lent, the season of prayer and fasting observed by the Roman Catholic Church (and many other Christian denominations) during the forty days before Easter Sunday.

The tradition of celebrating on the day before Lent goes back at least to medieval times, when many kings and lords knighted young men and held feasts in their honor. Mardi Gras in New Orleans dates back all the way to the late seventeenth century, when the city was founded by by Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, and Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur de Iberville. In fact, one of the first New World locations that they named was Bayou Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras was celebrated throughout the period where New Orleans was under control of the French, then the Spanish, then back to the French. The English and their American descendants from the original thirteen colonies didn't take the Carnival season as seriously as the local residents, but the Americans didn't do anything to stop the celebration of Mardi Gras after the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 nor after Louisiana became a state. The Americans may have been officially in control of New Orleans, but the Creoles who made up the upper-crust of New Orleans society were primarily of French and Spanish descent, so the religious traditions of the Continent continued to dominate.

The Carnival season in the first half of the nineteenth century was not a calm, quite celebration. In fact, the citizens of New Orleans got so wrapped up in Mardi Gras that street masking was banned by the authorities by the 1830's. This didn't deter the hardcore participants one bit. By the 1840's, there was so much drunkenness and disorder in the city that there was strong sentiment for banning all public celebrations of Mardi Gras. Carnival was rescued, however, by six young men from Mobile. They formed the Mystick Krewe of Comus, a social club that staged the first New Orleans Carnival parade on the evening of Mardi Gras in 1857. Naming one of their number the king of the krewe (the word being deliberately spelled that way to show they were an elite society), they paraded through the streets of the French Quarter on two mule-driven floats. Others picked up on the notion of parading during Carnival, but the Civil War put a damper on public observance of Mardi Gras.

After the war, however, several other krewes formed and put on parades on the days leading up to Mardi Gras. By 1871, Comus had been joined by the krewes of Proteus and Momus, and a new group formed that year, known as the School of Design. The School of Design decided to stage their parade during the day on Mardi Gras, and they proclaimed that their king was to be Rex, the King of Carnival.

From the 1870's up to the present, new krewes continue to form, as groups of friends, neighbors, business associates, etc., decide they want to celebrate Carnival by parading through New Orleans. A moratorium on street parades was imposed by the New Orleans City Council in the 1970's, but the hard economic times of the 1980's as well as the controversy that erupted over the passage of an "anti-discrimination" ordinance aimed at Carnival krewes by the City Council in 1992 have opened up slots in the parade season's schedule, so new krewes are forming and parading.

The future of Carnival in New Orleans is a hotly debated topic, but one thing is for certain: there will always be a future for Carnival.

2.2 What happens during Carnival?

The Carnival season officially begins on January 6th, which is Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany. Twelfth Night is the date that marks the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the countdown to Lent. There are two official celebrations that mark the beginning of Carnival: The bal masque of the Twelfth Night Revelers, and the ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows along St. Charles Avenue. From January 6th on up to three weeks before Mardi Gras, Carnival organizations hold parties, dances and balls, mostly on weekends.

About three weekends before Mardi Gras, the parades begin. From the second weekend before Mardi Gras up to Fat Tuesday, there is at least one parade each night in the city, Metairie, or on the West Bank. The entire celebration culminates on Fat Tuesday, with the entire city taking the day off to eat, drink, parade and party. Carnival officially comes to a close promptly at midnight on Fat Tuesday, when the police begin clearing the streets of the French Quarter. On a more civilized level, Carnival officially closes with the meeting of the courts of Rex and Comus at the ball of the Mystick Krewe of Comus.

2.3 What are the dates for Carnival 2006? See The Parade Schedule For 2006

Fat Tuesday for 2006 is Februrary 28th. Parades in New Orleans and Metairie will begin on the evening of Thursday, January 8th with the parade of Phunny Phorty Phellows - Streetcar route. Most visitors from out-of-town usually come to the city on the Friday or Saturday before Mardi Gras, so they can see the big parades that weekend, participate in the Lundi Gras celebrations on the Monday before, and the big day.

2.4 When should I make hotel reservations?

It's too late to get a room at just about any hotel in the downtown area or the French Quarter. If you want to come to New Orleans for Carnival 2006, your best bet would be to try the motels in the surrounding areas, such as Kenner, Metairie, Slidell, and the West Bank. If you're really desparate to get a room downtown, you can contact the hotels and see if they have any cancellations. I've heard stories of folks getting lucky because a couple got divorced, someone was injured in a skiing accident, and other incidents that forced them to cancel their trip to New Orleans. These are few and far between, however.

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