As I mentioned a few days ago, we here in New Orleans start the Carnival season just after Christmas and New Years end. January 6 marks the Epiphany/Twelfth Night, which is the start of Carnival season and the lead up to Mardi Gras, the last big hurrah before Lent. From now until Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), there’ll be parades and balls and costumes.
We’re not major participants—we don’t belong to any krewes or anything—and that’s the way I like it, at least for now. It can be both expensive and time-consuming to be a part of a Mardi Gras Krewe. But being in the city during such a celebration is a lot of fun, even for someone like me who doesn’t particularly like crowds and doesn’t drink.
Here are 13 things I’ve come to love about the season since living in the city.
1. Parades. There are a lot of different parades, starting with the Joan of Arc parade on Twelfth Night, that take place between Jan. 6 and Ash Wednesday, which marks the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent. The parades are lively and elaborate. And lots of fun.
2. Flambeaux. This is one I didn’t know about until attending parades here. Heavy torches once lit the way for parades; they’re carried by men who interact with the crowd and the parade itself. Originally, these men were slaves or free black men, and they were thrown tips performing their task. That part of the tradition survives.
3. Costumes. Everywhere there are people in costume. People on floats are in costume. Marching bands are in costume. Horse-back riders and riding and marching krewes are in costume. Spectators are in costumes. They range from the full-on costume to a wig and funny glasses, and you can just never tell what you’re going to see. I love a city that loves to dress up.
4. King cake. They’re a bit like really large cinnamon buns with glittery icing, though you can get king cakes in all kinds of flavors and fillings now. Generally, there’s a small plastic baby (or some kind of trinket, though usually a baby), and there are obligations attached to managing to snag the baby—buying the next cake, for instance.
5. Bead trees. Sometimes, beads manage to make their way into the trees after someone throws them. Sometimes, people put them there. What happens is a lovely, strange looking tree, a species unique to the area. Eventually the beads have to be taken down or cut down so as not to harm trees, but they’re pretty while they’re around.
6. Time off. Literally everything in the city shuts down for Mardi Gras day and generally for a few days before and after. It’s a nice extra holiday.
7. Ladders. Generally they’re meant for kids, and no one gets in a fuss about a big, decorated ladder hanging around. The kids can see more of the parade, and they can more easily reach parade throws.
8. Throws. Most parades just have folks who wave and smile. In New Orleans, our paraders throw things to the crowd. You can never tell if it’ll be candy, a toy, beads, a cup, or some other trinket, but there are always throws.
9. Mardi Gras trees. We took our trees down, but lots of folks leave their trees up after Christmas and just re-decorate them with beads and ornaments of gold, green, and purple, the traditional Mardi Gras colors. I like seeing the bright lights still shining through windows, the colorful ornaments glistening in the light.
10. The general hustle and bustle. This is one thing I thought I would hate. As I said, I don’t like crowds much, and I hate traffic. So I do hate driving anywhere during Mardi Gras. But I do enjoy watching all of the people and listening to them, seeing the faces of everyone who visits the city.
11. Mardi Gras Indians. Traditional Mardi Gras celebrations excluded most African-Americans, and they began to form their own tribes to celebrate the season. Parades aren’t pre-announced, though they tend to take place around the same time/space each year.
12. Balls. Mardi Gras balls are large affairs, and they’re eventful. And big. And varied.
13. Masks. Oh, I love a mask. And I love when other people wear masks. Especially Mardi Gras masks.