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Mardi Gras? or Carnival?

Well you put a nickel, and I’ll put a dime

We can get together and drink us some wine

All because it’s Carnival Time!

                                           – Al “Carnival Time” Johnson

We are rolling into that time of year again when things get crazy, even for New Orleans. If you take a New Orleans walking tour with one of our locals, you will get the inside buzz on the world’s biggest party. Where did all this frivolity and decadence begin? Let’s look at a brief history of Mardi Gras.

Mikko Macchione

Tour Guide with Unique NOLA Tours and Author of books about New Orleans.

New Orleans Rum: A Decadent History

Mardi Gras means ‘Fat Tuesday.’ Back in the Middle Ages the Catholic season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday. Since they were not going to be eating any meat for the next forty days, they held a big barbecue on the day before – “Fat Tuesday.” They would then put crowns on the heads of the town drunk and the town floozie and made them “King” and “Queen.” They would ride on a mule cart throwing their “riches” out to the masses.

These “riches” included wooden trinkets, bags of flour and chickens. This shambolic rowdiness continues today in the form of dozens of parades rolling with their own kings and queens and the throws include plastic beads, aluminum doubloons, Frisbees, high heels, coconuts, panties and just about anything else people will wrestle over.

The day is Mardi Gras, and the season is Carnival. Carnival season begins on Twelfth Night or King’s Day or Epiphany; whatever you call it, it’s on January 6th. Mardi Gras moves with Ash Wednesday, which in turn moves with Easter. This year, 2023, Mardi Gras is on February 21.

The folks that conduct the holiday are actual private groups called “Krewes.” When Mardi Gras started rolling in New Orleans in 1857, we were enamored with ancient Greek culture, so we gave the word ‘crew’ a Greek-y spelling. The parades as well were named for Greek and Roman gods such as Zeus, Venus and Bacchus.

Today there is every sort of parade reflecting different peoples’ sense of humor and style. We have a Star Wars parade called Chewbacchus. We have a doggie parade named Barkus.

A complete guide to Mardi Gras would have to be like an encyclopedia. If you are coming down for the festivities, it’ll be easy to meet folks willing to introduce you to the frenetic world of Carnival. And don’t forget your costume!