New Orleans is a city apart from the rest of the United States. The unique culture of the city comes from over a dozen nationalities and cultures blended together. Second lines, a hundred live music venues, and world class culinary experiences combine to create an addicting and seductive atmosphere. New Orleans isn’t a party city, it’s a city with a rich culture and history that throws a lot of parties.
The biggest and best party of the year, Mardi Gras, begins 12 days after Christmas and continues until the day before Ash Wednesday. The party began over 300 years ago, getting bigger and better every year and now almost a million and a half people visit New Orleans to partake. Here are some of the coolest traditions from Mardi Gras.
Rex, King of the Carnival. The tradition of anointing a king of Mardi Gras goes back to the end of the Civil War and a visit by Russia’s Grand Duke. Wishing to reinvigorate the post-war city, bring order to the Mardi Gras celebration the Rex Organization created a daytime parade to entertain the grand duke, creating a lasting tradition of picking a carnival king. These days the honoree is a local figure who receives a key to the city and presides over the Mardi Gras festivities.
Flambeaux. When Mardi Gras began, there wasn’t electrical lighting. Instead, the flambeaux went ahead of parade floats, so revelers could see. Now, the flambeaux is a tradition rather than a necessity. They still proceed the parade, but with updated equipment including propane backpacks and multiple-burner torches.
King Cake. The cake represents the three wise men arriving with gifts for the baby Jesus. The dough takes a variety of forms, always twisted into a circle to represent a crown. It’s decorated with icing and sprinkles in Mardi Gras colors; purple, green, and gold. Whoever finds the trinket hidden inside, such as a bean or plastic baby toy, must host next year’s celebration.
Masks. Revelers wore masks during the early days of Mardi Gras to could escape the constraints of their class and social norms. Now, New Orleans law requires any float rider to wear a mask.
Ladders. Colorful ladders line parade routes. They’re more than mere decoration. Kids perch on the ladders to see the parade over the heads of the crowd.
Krewes. It’s the krewes who put on the parades and balls of Mardi Gras. There’s over fifty in the city, a number that grows every year. Admittance to a krewe depends on the group’s exclusivity, and membership can grow into the thousands for some. Krewe members pay dues, help prepare and execute events, and create the throws for the float.
Throws. Beads are the most well known throw during Mardi Gras, but each krewe comes up with their own trinket to throw, like hand-painted coconuts, shoes decorated with glitter, custom doubloons, and LED trinkets.
Boeuf Gras. French for ‘fatted calf’ the original krewe back in 1704 was a secret society called Masque de la Mobile. During Mardi Gras they formed the Boeuf Gras Society, who made a giant bull head that 16 men would push during parades. Later, a real bull led the Rex krewe and parade for King of the Carnival.
Ojen. A sweet anise-flavored spirit similar to, but less boozy than absinthe. It’s a celebratory drink in New Orleans, often drunk on Christmas, and on Mardi Gras day for good luck. The original makers went out of business, but rye-distillers Sazerac took over production. It’s still difficult to find outside of the south.
Mounted Police. Come the strike of midnight on Fat Tuesday, mounted police move through Bourbon Street, ending Mardi Gras with the start of Ash Wednesday. It’s an abrupt stop to the weeks of parties, and a strictly enforced curfew, “please clear the street,” police call through megaphones. (x)