Distant voice: Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Student Life Travel

Last week the UK celebrated Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Pancake Day, but in the United States, the day of feasts is known as Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras is all about family, friends, food, and fun; its a day to celebrate living life at its fullest before the fasting of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. In the states, there is no better place to celebrate Mardi Gras than New Orleans, Louisiana.

Every Shrove Tuesday, the streets of New Orleans are packed with people as both locals and visitors cheer on the marvellous street processions. The parade-goers often dress in costumes, adorned with beads caught from “throws” in previous years, and sport the official colours of Mardi Gras: purple for justice, gold for power, and green for faith. Along with the music and festivities, picnics in the street are one of the staples of Mardi Gras. The traditional carnival fare includes Red Beans and Rice, Creole Jambalaya, Cajun Prawn and Grits, and beignets, the official state doughnut of Louisiana. Yet nothing quite says, “Mardi Gras cuisine” like King’s Cake, the Danish dough cakes named for the three wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. Traditionally, a tiny baby (usually plastic, though once they were made of porcelain and gold) is baked inside of the King’s Cake, and the one who receives the slice of cake with the baby Jesus inside becomes the King of the Mardi Gras.

The New Orleans Mardi Gras carnival generates over $1 billion for the state in annual spending. This fact is impressive when one considers that the city does not provide any of the funding for the festivities. The street processions are paid for by the parade krewes who organize their parade themes, costumes, and entertainment, as well as annual electing Rex, the King of the Carnival. The Mardi Gras krewes are private, non-profit organizations, individually funded by their members. While some of the larger krewes have corporate sponsors, most krewes raise money through membership dues, fundraising, and merchandise sales.

Every krewe is unique, representing different charities and good causes, and they often host events like balls and parties for their members throughout the year. While most krewes derive their names from Greek mythology (Orpheus, Okeanos, Isis, etc.), others find their roots in pop-culture, like the sci-fi inspired Chewbacchus. Some of the most popular krewes include Zulu, Rex, Endymion, and Bacchus. Bacchus is one of the largest, and therefore considered one of the most spectacular, krewes in Mardi Gras history. The krewe hosts more than 1,000 members and provides 31 outrageous “super-floats” like the Bacchagator, Bacchasaurus, and Baccha-Whoppa. Bacchus is known for their Las Vegas-style of entertainment, a marching band procession that walks alongside the floats, and their celebrity headliners. Just last year, Oxford-born actor Hugh Laurie led the Krewe of Bacchus parade.

The carnival season in New Orleans begins on January 6th, a “Twelfth Night” observation that carries on until Fat Tuesday. The Big Easy plays host to over a month’s worth of festivities that culminates in a massive celebration of street performers, live bands, and grand floats. A city-wide party, the grandiose celebrations of Mardi Gras in New Orleans are all about indulging in life, food, and music, before commencing the fasting and religious obligations of Lent in a fun and family-friendly way.

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