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Mardi Gras, Past and Present

Boeuf Gras
Boeuf Gras
Rex Float
Rex Float
Mardi Gras Doubloon
Coin of the Realm:
a Mardi Gras Doubloon
Mardi Gras Indian
Mardi Gras Indian
Mardi Gras Parade
Mardi Gras Parade
King Cake
King Cake

Exactly 150 years ago, a group of prominent New Orleans businessmen gathered together to form an organization that would welcome the Grand Duke Alex Romanoff Alexandrovitch to the city during the annual Mardi Gras festivities, begun more than a century earlier. That event, and the parade and ball that were established, formed what is now known as the Rex organization and the heartbeat of Mardi Gras. Today, there are hundreds of Mardi Gras clubs (called krewes) that host grand balls and several dozen krewes that conduct elaborate, colorful and, at times, outrageous parades through the streets of the city. In fact, it is hard to imagine this city without the annual spring celebration.

Locals and visitors alike get into the spirit and Mardi Gras revelry is legendary. While Mardi Gras Day is the biggest celebration, the season actually begins on Twelfth Night, January 6. However, the two weeks prior to the event are a frenzy of activity and a bow to the many traditions that have remained intact throughout the centuries.

Visitors are welcome at any parade. The most family-friendly areas are along the magnificent oak-tree-lined St. Charles Avenue. Here locals and visitors greet the colorful parades with custom designed floats made of sparkling papier-maché. Marching bands from colleges, high schools and military units from throughout the United States provide a rhythm and sound unmatched by any other parade in this country.

The streets of the French Quarter are a bit bawdier and more crowded. Strollers are free to walk down the streets with alcoholic beverages in plastic cups, and there is no limit to the imagination of costume design. Let's just say that many people on the streets take a "less is more" attitude.

Riders on these lavish floats are local citizens who belong to the sponsoring krewes and toss "throws" to passersby. The most coveted "throws" include doubloons (metal coins embossed with the names of the krewe), beads, plastic cups, stuffed toys, moon pies and even panties.

Balls are opulent, formal affairs, each with its own king, queen and royal court. Guests are included by invitation only. A coveted invitation is usually sent to a guest without mention of the name of the member who invited him or her as secrecy is respected as part of the tradition.

For those interested in the historic aspects of Mardi Gras, there are two permanent exhibitions that should be put on the "must see" list:

"Mardi Gras: It's Carnival Time in Louisiana" is found at the Presbytere in the historic French Quarter. There are two floors of high-tech, interactive exhibitions that trace the history, culture and traditions that surround this annual rite of passage in New Orleans and south Louisiana. Visitors find exquisite costumes (from the beaded gowns of ball queens to the bold headdresses of the Mardi Gras Indians), antique ball invitations, crowns, scepters and jewels worn by royalty. The exhibition bedazzles and educates!

Mardi Gras World is where Blaine Kern, the city's best-known float designer and builder, showcases float designing and building. Blaine Kern, the largest float-building company in the world, provides a stunning year-round glimpse at the intricate process of building these floats.

Because the whole motif of Mardi Gras is to enjoy life's excesses before the beginning of the Lenten season, food is a major part of the celebration. Local fare includes plenty of traditional Creole foods such as jambalaya, gumbo, shrimp Creole and red beans and rice. These foods are available at local restaurants year round, and form the basis for the local culinary experience of the city.

One Mardi Gras delicacy is the king cake, a rich pastry that is decorated with a sugary icing in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold. Each cake contains one small plastic baby, and the person who finds the baby in his or her piece must host the next party. It's just another quirky tradition of the season.

It is wise to make hotel reservations months in advance before a Mardi Gras visit. Many hotels require four or five night minimum stays, so plan accordingly.

Click here to view upcoming Mardi Gras dates.

Isn't it time for you to visit Mardi Gras and to experience this once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza?

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