Whether you refer to it as Mardi Gras, Martedí Grasso, or Fettisdagen, the carnival celebrations of Fat Tuesday are fêted in countries across Europe and the Americas. Not limited to just one day, Carnival is the name given to the revelry enjoyed between Epiphany (January 6th) and Ash Wednesday, while the pinnacle of it all is the last day – Mardi Gras.
Given that Ash Wednesday is the last day before Lent, a period of penance, reflection, and fasting, for some Mardi Gras is the last opportunity for indulgence.
The American city of New Orleans experienced its first Mardi Gras in 1827, and this year it falls on March 4th. Over the centuries is has evolved into an extravagant and festive holiday and draws nearly one million visitors into the city’s streets.
During the first weeks of Carnival in New Orleans a series of formal and lavish balls take place. They are hosted by the many Mardi Gras krewes and most are, unfortunately, invitation only. As a visitor to New Orleans the best way to experience the atmosphere of Carnival is at one of the many street parades held in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras.
The Carnival calendar is filled with parades and the streets are likewise filled with revellers, marching bands, music, and colourful floats carrying elaborately costumed krewe riders throwing strands of beads and other goodies into the crowd. Beads are only worn during Carnival in New Orleans, although tourists clearly mark themselves by wearing them in the off-season.
Another feature of Carnival and Mardi Gras is King Cake. These cakes were historically served only on Epiphany but are now enjoyed throughout the entire festive period for breakfast, with coffee or tea, and for dessert.
Traditionally made with a braided, cinnamon-laced brioche, a small figure representing baby Jesus is placed inside the cake after it is baked, but before it is topped with icing and purple, green, and gold sugar. Modern King Cakes are now creatively filled and topped with fruit, cream cheese, or chocolate, but one part of the tradition remains constant: the person who finds baby Jesus inside the cake should continue the festivities by holding the next King Cake party.
After weeks of Carnival the main event, Mardi Gras, finally arrives. The day starts early at 8am with the 50-float Zulu Parade, followed at 10am by the smaller, though equally popular, Rex Parade. Food vendors line the parade routes selling festival snacks like candy apples and cotton candy.
Costumes are not typically worn by revellers during Carnival but the same sense of decorum does not apply on Mardi Gras. Those celebrating take their inspiration from current events and group-themed costumes, and the results range from bizarre to satirical to flashy to pretty. As wacky as it may be, go with the flow and celebrate Mardi Gras in style.