"It's Carnival time, and everybody's having fun."
—from "Carnival Time," Al Jonson
Joyeux Mardi Gras!
The one thing everyone seems to know about New Orleans is that it has a big Mardi Gras celebration. But many people are fuzzy on the details, including writers.
The Carnival Season traditions of New Orleans are so rich that one could write books about them. Here, I'll just summarize the basics and provide links to more information so that you don't embarrass yourself when writing a story set in New Orleans during Carnival Season.
Mardi Gras is on a different date every year because it's tied to the Catholic Church calendar, not the secular calendar. Mardi Gras itself is always the day before Ash Wednesday. It's called Mardi Gras—French for "Fat Tuesday"—because it's the last day before the sacrifices and penances of Lent.
In New Orleans, the season of parties and parades leading up to Mardi Gras day is called Carnival. It starts on Twelfth Night, the twelfth day after Christmas.The first Carnival ball occurs that night. The balls are part of the secret Mardi Gras that visitors and most people who are not from old New Orleans families do not see, including me. So I will focus on what I know, the public celebrations.
One widespread custom is the king cake, which appears in bakeries on Twelfth Night (also known as Kings' Day). The king cake varies from bakery to bakery and is made differently in different homes. But it is always a sweet, oval pastry, usually iced and often with a filling inside. Before baking, a trinket is mixed into the dough; nowadays, for safety's sake, this is a small plastic doll, called the baby, that is soft enough not to break a tooth on and big enough that you probably won't swallow it. King cakes show up at offices, parties, and other places. The custom is that whoever finds the baby must provide the next king cake (and throw the next party the following week).
The official colors of Mardi Gras have remained the same since 1872: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. These colors show up everywhere. Some civic-minded people paint their houses purple, green, and gold to celebrate year-round. Most Mardi Gras beads (discussed later) are one, two, or three of these colors; so are the icing on king cakes, many costumes, Carnival-season clothes, and almost anything else you can think of.
Many people look forward most to the parades or the parties that people who live along the parade route throw. The most parades roll on Mardi Gras Day—barring rain, nine parades, including Rex and Zulu. Although most parades occur in the week and a half leading up to Mardi Gras, in 2012 there were two parades on Twelfth Night. Each parade is sponsored by a club called a crewe, which chooses a theme for the float and then spends the entire year having elaborate floats and "throws" designed and made.
Families generally watch the parades from their porches, their friends' porches, and along the streets and on the neutral grounds (medians) in neighborhoods. The crowd in the French Quarter is rowdy, and people stand 30 deep; also, tourists congregate in the Quarter, getting drunk and sometimes taking off items of clothing. So few families go to the Quarter on Mardi Gras day; they celebrate with friends and neighbors instead.
As tractors pull the floats down the street, the costumed and masked krewe members, riding horses, riding in cars, or riding on the floats, toss "throws" to the crowd. The most common throws are strands of plastic beads (often coated with a metallic layer) that both men and women wear around their necks, doubloons (commemorative coins bearing the year and name of the parade), and commemorative go-cups (a large plastic cup suitable for safetly carrying your beer or other drink on the street). The most-coveted throw is a coconut decorated by someone in the Krewe of Zulu. Other throws include small stuffed animals, candy, small toys, decorated high-heeled shoes, MoonPies, koozies, and tee-shirts.
Between the floats march great high school and military bands, dance troupes, and flambeaux carriers, who dance with torches at the night parades, a tradition dating back to before there were street lights.
In some neighborhoods, people march on foot from bar to bar or on an improvised route. The most glamorous of these groups is the Mardi Gras Indians. The Indians are small groups of African-American men who spend all year designing and making sewing beads on elaborate, colorful costumes based on Plains Indian outfits.
Mardi Gras day, the parades are done by midafternoon, but the partying picks up. In the Quarter, street sweeping machines start rolling at exactly midnight as mounted police, horses shoulder to shoulder, firmly encourage everyone to go home. Mardi Gras ends with a whimper as tired people slump off.
To learn more:
Large collection of links about Mardi Gras (including etiquette, history in New Orleans, Carnival balls, parade dates, and tips for first timers) can be found here, here, and here.
Learn about the krewes and their history here, here, here, and here.
Information on Mardi Gras Indians and links to more information are here.
In rural Acadiana in southern Louisiana, customs are quite different and include le Courir de Mardi Gras, a celebration that varies from town to town but usually involves costumes, masked riders on horseback who gather ingredients for a community gumbo, other types of begging, singing, and playing pranks. See also this brief overview.
Mardi Gras is so much more than what I've been able to fit in this post. I'd appreciate stories or links shared in comments to help readers understand our traditions better.
Far from home, but always a New Orleanean wherever I am,