Mardi Gras Basics

These Carnival basics are offered to first-timers, or as a brush-up for repeat revelers.
Mardi Gras always falls on the Tuesday that is 46 days before Easter. It is always the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the start of Lent. 
• Carnival refers to the season of revelry before Mardi Gras. It begins officially on Jan. 6, which is known as Twelfth Night or Kings’ Day, so named because it falls 12 days after Christmas on the day the Wise Men are said to have reached Bethlehem.

• Carnival celebrations fall into two categories: public and private. The private celebrations are balls, held by clubs called krewes. Some krewes let anyone join, while others are exclusive and made up mostly of FONOF (fine old New Orleans families).

• The first Carnival ball of the season is always the Twelfth Night Ball, held on Jan. 6.

• The public celebrations take the form of parades, sponsored by the same krewes that hold the balls for members only. Not every krewe has a parade, although every krewe will throw a party for its members. A very few krewes allow the public to buy tickets to their balls – Endymion and Orpheus, for example. About 70 groups in a four-parish area around New Orleans hold parades.

• Most krewes are named for figures in Greek mythology, like Bacchus for the god of wine or Orpheus for the god of music (no coincidence the latter was co-founded by Harry Connick Jr.)

• The parade season officially begins on the second Friday before Mardi Gras, although the parade calendar is expanding. At the beginning of the season, parades are held on weekends only, then become more frequent until the week prior to Mardi Gras, when there’s at least a parade a day. There are nine parades on Mardi Gras, most notably Rex.

• Rex (don’t say “king of”; it’s redundant) – always a prominent New Orleans businessman – is considered the king of Mardi Gras. (You should, therefore, sneer when you hear some Hollywood matinee idol announce to Jay Leno that he will be “king of the Mardi Gras.” He won’t.)

• Every parade has a theme, usually borrowed from mythology, history or Hollywood. Most parades have mock royalty, kings and queens and dukes and duchesses, either drawn from the ranks of the krewe’s members or celebrities (hence the Jay Leno clown above). All parade riders throw trinkets – beads, doubloons, small toys, candy – from the floats to the crowds. These are called “throws.” Parades consist of anywhere from 10 to 40 floats carrying krewe members, marching bands, dance groups, costumed characters and the like. Some parades are small and suburban, others downtown and lavish.

• The colors of Carnival are purple, green and gold, chosen in 1872 by that year’s Rex. The 1892 Rex parade gave the official colors meaning: purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power.

• The one ubiquitous food of the Carnival season is the king cake. Sweet roll-like dough is shaped into a big circle, cooked and brushed with purple, green and gold sugar or icing. Then a plastic baby, representing the Christ child, is tucked inside. Whoever gets the piece of cake containing the baby must, by tradition, provide the next king cake. Nowadays, king cakes come with a variety of fillings from chocolate to pineapple.