Most of what I thought I knew about the famous annual celebration came from national TV coverage and Hollywood depictions, and it centered on wild scenes and bawdy behavior on Bourbon Street. These impressions weren't completely false—Bourbon Street does get pretty outrageous—but I quickly learned that was only one very limited aspect of a stunningly diverse, community-wide celebration. I discovered an entire season of merriment and festivity, a period called Carnival season, that culminates with the biggest blowout of all on Mardi Gras.
French for "Fat Tuesday," Mardi Gras always falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, which signals the beginning of Lent. While historians trace the roots of Carnival to ancient, pre-Christian rituals, the modern-day Mardi Gras is traditionally a last hurrah before the period of penitence leading to Easter on the Catholic calendar. It is celebrated in cities around the globe, perhaps most vigorously in Rio de Janeiro.
In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is a cultural phenomenon that sweeps over the whole community and takes the form of both elaborate parades and loose block parties, of unscripted public revelry and deeply engrained custom. It's an all-encompassing experience, one that issues from homes, families and private clubs.
"I think people are most surprised by how family-friendly this all really is," says Arthur Hardy, publisher of the annual Arthur Hardy's Mardi Gras Guide. "Outside of the French Quarter it really is fit for kids, and in fact some of it is geared to them."
The most visible and accessible manifestations of Carnival are its famous parades. Though the number of parades may change from year to year, visitors can expect to find more than 50 processions scheduled during the two weeks proceeding and including Mardi Gras day in New Orleans and its suburbs.
All of the parades are funded and produced by private organizations, which are known as krewes. Some are intensely traditional, like the Krewe of Rex, whose leader is known as the "King of Carnival." The krewe has been a prominent symbol of Mardi Gras since its first appearance in 1872. Meanwhile, Zulu, the city's oldest African-American krewe has paraded since 1909 and these days shares “royalty” responsibilities with Rex.
The parades are feasts for the senses, from the martial blare of marching bands escorting them through the streets to the splendor of the artwork on the floats themselves. They are also uniquely interactive events for the public. Each float is packed with costumed riders who freely toss colorful beads and other trinkets to the crowd, usually reserving stuffed animals and other coveted "throws" for children.
Families and groups of friends of all ages make a day—or night—of it. They often set up their own picnic sites on the sidewalks and grassy medians, or "neutral grounds," along the parade routes, while roving vendors and local businesses supply plenty of food and drink.
The Carnival tempo increases steadily day after day, building toward the season's climax on Fat Tuesday, when another participatory aspect of the celebration comes into full bloom. In a tradition dating back to the ancient roots of Carnival, thousands of locals and visitors alike take to the streets on Fat Tuesday in costumes. These can range from something as simple as a classic eye mask to something worthy of a Broadway wardrobe. These costumed revelers help transform the city into one giant mysterious party.
While Bourbon Street remains an R-rated scene, families and friends can be found all over the rest of the French Quarter on Mardi Gras, playfully interacting in their costumes and joining an annual rite that helps set this singular city apart.