Festival season in New Orleans is a time of excitement, culture, and, for many Tulane students, brand new experiences. Though I was somewhat familiar with Mardi Gras as a whole before coming to Tulane, my conception of the celebration was nebulous at best. Born and raised in California, my understanding was rooted in Hollywood portrayals and tourist-led perspectives. During my time at Tulane, Mardi Gras has become a focal point of my spring semester: the city transforms into a buzzing hub of tourists and locals alike. As for myself, I would say I exist somewhere in between those two categories.
Despite having lived in New Orleans for the past three years, my historical knowledge of Mardi Gras was embarrassingly lacking (prior to the writing of this article). This, unfortunately, is a painful Tulane stereotype: a young, privileged individual who comes to New Orleans because they “just love it here!” yet fails to invest energy in learning about the rich history and culture of the city. Yes, I am putting myself on blast. Yes, I am taking this opportunity to educate myself. And so, let us embark on this journey together!
Krewe? Is that a typo?
No, this is in fact how krewe is spelled! Different from the crew that you might hit up The Boot with, a krewe is an organization that works throughout the year to plan out Mardi Gras balls and parades. The name was coined by the first group to parade throughout the city with floats in 1857, the Mystick Krewe of Comus. Each krewe has a unique history and theme. They might be organized by neighborhood, interest, or community involvement. Some of the more well-known krewes include Krewe of Bacchus, named for the Greek god of wine and consisting of over 1,600 members, and Krewe of Zulu — it is certainly a hard flex if you’re able to survive Tequila Sunrise and make it out to Krewe of Zulu’s parade at 8 AM on Fat Tuesday.
Each krewe has a King and Queen, whose identities are kept secret throughout the year until the big reveal at the krewe’s ball. Some balls are formal, private affairs that require special invitations. Some “super krewes,” like Krewe of Endymion and Krewe of Orpheus, host less-exclusive balls more akin to extravagant parties, often featuring special performances for entertainment. These are often ticketed events that are open to the public. If you’re interested in attending one, check out Facebook or Eventbrite to find tickets!
Beads and Throws
Mardi Gras “throws” are items that are thrown by krewe members during the parades. These vary from beads to cups to toys and more. Many krewes have signature throws, which are highly coveted. For example, you might be on a quest for a Muses shoe or a Nyx purse. Be careful, though — this is no time for monkeying around. Hands can and will be thrown for a Zulu coconut. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Note: Mardi Gras beads are recyclable! After festival season is through, bring your beads to a bead recycling bin. The Arc of Greater New Orleans (ArcGNO) turns beads into jobs for individuals with autism, Down Syndrome, and other intellectual disabilities. You can find your nearest recycling location on their website.
A New Orleans king cake is traditionally an oval-shaped coffee cake, braided and covered in icing and sprinkles that feature traditional Mardi Gras colors: purple, green, and gold (which symbolize justice, faith, and power, respectively). They can be found lining store shelves between Twelfth Night — also known as the Feast of the Epiphany, which kicks off Carnival season — and Fat Tuesday. Each king cake contains a small plastic baby within it (although many are now sold with them outside of the cake to reduce choking hazards). Tradition states that whoever cuts the slice that contains the baby is king for the day — and also has to buy the next king cake, thus continuing the celebration.
There are plenty of variations of king cakes: different fillings, flavors, and even sippable forms! Check out this list from GoNOLA to discover new possibilities and eat your way around town.
What exactly is Carnival?
Though some people use Carnival and Mardi Gras interchangeably, they are actually not the same thing! Carnival, which begins on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th of this year), is meant to be a time to eat, drink, and celebrate before the fasting and sacrifice of Lent. This season, filled with parades and balls, leads up to Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday.” Carnival officially ends when the clock strikes midnight Tuesday night, marking the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday.
These flaming torches might be a little scary when they get too close to your already-warm-from-drinking face. Seemingly innocuous, flambeaux (plural for flambeau, meaning “flaming torch”) are a tradition that was borne out of necessity: back in the day, they were marched ahead of krewes to light the night so that parades could be seen by spectators. However, they remind us of an important part of New Orleans history, illustrating elements of emerging American culture and social stratification. Originally, flambeaux were carried by slaves and free men of color, namely Creoles. When it’s cold at night and you find yourself being drawn to the heat of the flambeaux like a moth to a flame, remind yourself of the historically oppressive structure of this country and remember to vote in the upcoming presidential election!
This, of course, is a very minimal guide to the complex history and traditions of Mardi Gras. I encourage you to take the time to do some research and find out more about this wonderful city in which we live. And when Mardi Gras rolls around in a couple of weeks (how does time move so quickly?!), remember to stay hydrated, travel in groups, and watch out for your friends!
Cover Photo: Forbes