An event that is tied to Lent, for many Mardi Gras is also a celebration of the end of winter and the coming of spring. The dates vary and whether the party lasts for a week or a day, it is always over on the Tuesday (Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday) before Ash Wednesday – the start of Lent. Many places in the US have a Mardi Gras event of some kind although some are quite a bit bigger than others.
New Orleans, LA
The biggest party before Lent happens in New Orleans, one of the most famous pre-Lenten Carnivals in the world. Parades begin almost three weeks before Ash Wednesday with a boat parade that circles downtown canals. The next two weekends are filled with parades and other fun events but things get serious the week before Ash Wednesday.
Parades and parties go on all week with two of the biggest taking place the weekend before Fat Tuesday. This is when the parades of Bacchus and Endymion take place and pack the streets both days with parade watchers. If your time in New Orleans is limited, try to be there for that weekend.
The best plan however is to arrive on Friday and stay through Ash Wednesday. The Zulu Lundi Gras festival is all day Monday and the Orpheus Krewe has their parade that night. Fat Tuesday is the best day for wandering the French Quarter and enjoying all the costumes. While float riders are required to wear masks during their parades, masks aren’t legal for anyone else until Fat Tuesday.
Mardi Gras Balls are the other big event going during the carnival, but don’t feel slighted if you aren’t invited. Most are private formal affairs for the krewe and include introduction of debutantes and a very serious court that includes the King and Queen of the krewe.
First held in 1703, this is the oldest Carnival in the U.S. The first capital of French Louisiana, the celebrations began as a Catholic tradition in Mobile and have evolved into a multi-week, mainstream event. Some of the traditions are similar to those in New Orleans including private societies and exclusive masked balls, but the parade throws are more varied and candy or stuffed animals are as likely to be tossed as beads or cakes. One year Moon Pies were thrown and have since become a regular tradition on the floats.
There also some fascinating mystic societies that date back 3 centuries and are never part of the public events. Private balls for the members can be held all winter but many take place during the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras. The oldest society that participates in the parades is the Order of Myths and its emblem “Folly chasing Death” is one of the symbols of Mobile’s Mardi Gras. OOM is also the only mystic society that lights its float with lit torches, the rest having switched to electric lights.
A masked ball in 1867 marked the first Mardi Gras celebration here with a more extensive event taking place in 1871 when the Knights of Momus and the Knights of Myth held rival parades and balls. The festivities were disrupted several times during the World Wars but were revived 30 years ago with a night parade that spanned a full mile.
Most of the fun takes place downtown and this is where you’ll see parades, concerts and balcony parties. The largest parades take place the first weekend when Aquarius and Gambrinus throw their bashes. Attire is strictly, fun but flashier tends to be better and wild wigs are always a good choice.
All of the outdoor festivities are family-friendly, but Galveston holds several events specifically for younger kids. Two parades by kids’ organizations take place the first weekend and the Sunday before Fat Tuesday has both the Barkus and Meoux parade and the Mardi Gras Children’s Parade.
St. Louis, MO
St. Louis claims to have the biggest Mardi Gras celebration outside of New Orleans and have a few events that are purely Midwest. The Lumiere Place Grand Parade is huge and has more than 100 entries participating. The Pet Parade is almost as popular and entrants are usually dressed up – as are their owners – when they parade through the historic Soulard neighbourhood.
The Weiner Dog Derby also draws a crowd eager to watch three dog divisions (Cocktail Wienies, Ballpark Franks and Hot Dogs) blaze down the track to take home the honor of being the fastest dachshund in the city (awarded in the Wiener's circle, of course).
Cajun food, restaurant sample plates and a no-pretense beer tent get party-goers entertained until the big Fat Tuesday Parade where season packets are as popular to throw as beads and doubloons.