Laissez les bon temps rouler! That’s “Let the good times roll!” for those of you who don’t speak French. That’s also the motto for Mardi Gras, the annual drunken bacchanal that has become symbolic of New Orleans, the Crescent City.
For those of you who can’t make it to New Orleans today, here are five facts about Mardi Gras that you may not have known.
Mardi Gras Isn’t Just One Day – It’s The Culmination Of A Whole Season
Mardi Gras is the final day of the season known as Carnival – that is, the season of celebrating and feasting in order to get it out of your system before Lent. That’s right: Mardi Gras, for all its drinking, boob-flashing, and merry-making, is, at its heart, a religious holiday.
From the Latin for “farewell to flesh,” the Carnival season was meant to be your last chance to eat meat – and by extension, party it up – before having to give it up for Lent, according to All Ah We. Carnival begins on the Day of Epiphany – January 6th, and lasts until Fat Tuesday – the day before Ash Wednesday. Since the latest possible date of Mardi Gras is March 9, that means that, in one of life’s more happy ironies, while Lent itself only lasts 40 days, the season to prepare for Lent could last as long as 62 days.
The beginning of Carnival is, compared to Mardi Gras, shockingly low-key: two small (compared to their Fat Tuesday cousins, anyway) parades, sparsely attended – since it’s usually cold.
As the Big Day approaches, however, the frequency of Mardi Gras celebrations gradually intensifies, with more (and higher-profile) parades and parties, all culminating on Fat Tuesday.
Get Your Krewe Together
Your town may have the Rotary Club, Kiwanis, and the Knights of Columbus; New Orleans has Krewes (pronounced “crews”; the singular is a Krewe, pronounced “crew”).
A Krewe is a group that puts on a Mardi Gras parade and/or a ball, according to New Orleans Online; when it’s not Mardi Gras season, they’re involved in civic and charitable activities.
Higher-profile (and more expensive) Krewes, such as Bacchus or Proteus, have bigger and more elaborate parades closer to Fat Tuesday. The two (arguably) biggest and most high-profile New Orleans Krewes, Zulu and Rex, have theirs on Mardi Gras day itself.
Lower-profile Krewes have parades further out from Mardi Gras day, and are often tongue-in-cheek. The Mystic Krewe of Barkus parade, for example, features dogs (Barkus, dogs, get it?).
Sorry, You Probably Won’t Get To Join A Krewe (Not A Big One, Anyway)
If you’re thinking, “Wow! Being a part of a Krewe and marching in a Mardi Gras parade sounds like fun!”, I’m afraid I have some sobering news: unless your family has lived in New Orleans for generations, and you have Old Money (and lots of it), you won’t be joining a high-profile Krewe.
There are also certain “other” requirements. Good luck even seeing an application to join Rex, for example, if you’re not Catholic. Zulu, on the other hand, started out as an aide society for New Orleans’ black community, and membership to this day remains limited to upper-crust blacks.
At least one high-profile Krewe will allow just anyone to join; membership in Harry Connick, Jr.’s Krewe of Orpheus is open to “all men and women of good character.” The fee to join is $500, and if you want to march in the parade, be prepared to shell out another thousand, at a minimum.
Lower-profile Krewes, such as Barkus, are easier to join and have less-stringent requirements.
There Are Lots Of Kings And Queens, But Only One “Official” King And Queen
Most every Mardi Gras parade worth its salt will have an official Grand Marshal of sorts, who serves as that Krewe’s honorary “King” for the year. Some Krewes, such as Bacchus for example, will name an entertainer or celebrity as their king: The King of Bacchus 2015 is actor John C. Reilly.
Other Krewes will select a man from among their own ranks to serve as king. Zulu, for example, appoints a member to serve as an honorary “King,” who ceremonially arrives in town on the night of Lundi Gras (the Monday before Mardi Gras) on a shrimp barge, wearing an oil can on his head instead of a crown.
The “Official” King of Mardi Gras is Rex – that is, a member of the Krewe of Rex who is given the title “Rex” and chosen to symbolically reign over the festivities. He will also be assigned a “consort” – that is, a well-heeled young lady who symbolically serves as the “Queen” of Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras Isn’t Limited To New Orleans
Some half a million people, on average, crowd into New Orleans every year for Mardi Gras, but Fat Tuesday isn’t limited just to the Crescent City. Other cities throughout the South get in on the Mardi Gras fun as well: Biloxi’s Mardi Gras tradition, for example, goes back well over a century. Other smaller towns and cities throughout the South hold their own, much smaller, Mardi Gras celebrations.
Mardi Gras is also huge in Saint Louis. Although it only goes back to the 1980’s, the celebration honors St. Louis’ French roots, and brings tens of thousands of revelers the city’s Soulard neighborhood.
Although most Americans automatically think of New Orleans when they think of Mardi Gras, the Big Daddy of Mardi Gras celebrations takes place on another continent.
Whereas Mardi Gras in New Orleans brings in around half a million visitors per year, Mardi Gras in Rio de Janeiro (where it’s called “Carnival”) generally brings in around two to three million, according to BBC.
Have you ever been to a Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, St. Louis, Rio, or anywhere else? Share your stories in the Comments below.