By Chris K

Today’s Itinerary

  • Stuff ourselves with King Cake, in the hope of being King for a Day
  • Try and find a costume that can compete with other parade-goers
  • Watch the Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans
  • Stay up to date with a free subscription to our daily travel email

So after the hype and excitement of the Super Bowl, we’re left with this question – where do you start with trying to describe the Mardi Gras in New Orleans?

Do you begin with the weeks long celebrations, the months of hard graft and labour that goes into the preparations, the preposterous costumes on display, the outrageous behaviour of tourists on Bourbon Street?

We will cover all of that, of course – but we’re going to start with breakfast.

King Cakes for Visiting Royalty

Mardi Gras celebrations commence on the Twelfth Night (the twelfth night after Christmas) – that works out to be January 6th.

A celebration of the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmas and the revelation of the coming of the Epiphany, Twelfth Night has a fascinating history that involves involves the wassailing of apple trees, the reign of the Lord of Misrule, the riding of the Wild Hunt, and the upturning of order and certainty.

Photo by Infrogmation, Licensed under CC.

A photo of the parade from the 1930s – and the history goes back even further. Photo from Infrogmation, Licensed under CC.

One of the customs that has carried through to today is a special cake that chooses the King and Queen for the night. The King Cake, or gateau des Rois, contains a little bean hidden inside it, a custom taken from the Saturnalia feast of ancient Rome (we told you that it has a long history).

The one who stumbled upon the bean was called “king of the feast”, and we want to be the ones who find that bean (or, as it is these days, a little plastic baby).

There are lots of bakeries in New Orleans that make King Cakes and it isn’t too hard a task to find one that makes them – the challenge is choosing your flavours! In this video from Gambino’s Bakery ( 4821 Veterans Memorial Blvd, Metairie ) you can have a quick look at some of the crazy flavour combinations. The purple, green, and yellow colours are symbolic of the Mardi Gras festival.

As another example – the “Zulu King Cake” has chocolate icing with a coconut filling. This reflects the high and mighty status of the humble coconut, in connection with “throws” (what’s a throw? We’re getting there!).

Even more adventurous, the bakery featured in this video from National Geographic shows a King Cake with apple and goat’s cheese filling.

What do you wear to a costume parade?

It’s rewarding to see the women in these costumes…but it’s more rewarding to see the men, because a man doesn’t get to dress up in beautiful clothes, it’s usually in a tuxed-ah.

Sally Hedrick (dressmaker)

Photo by Derek Bridges, Licensed under CC.

This guy made the effort. Have you? Photo by Derek Bridges, Licensed under CC.

Sally’s not wrong – we don’t want to be the ones standing out for not having put enough effort in.

We’re heading the parades next, but we don’t want to be underdressed (and that’s something that’s really easy to accomplish – just look at this guy).

You’ll want to put some effort into your Mardi Gras costume. Think; feathers, boas, diamante, leopard print, leather, gold, jewelry. Don’t forget your mask.

Photo by LollyKnit, Licensed under CC.

Photo by LollyKnit, Licensed under CC.

Think, outrageous. After all, you’re competing with these guys.

Photo by Derek Bridges, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Derek Bridges, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Mark Gstolh, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Mark Gstolh, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Derek Bridges, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Derek Bridges, Licensed under CC.

Go NOLA‘s top five costume shops can be found here, with Miss Claudia’s being their top tip.

Photo by Infrogmation, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Infrogmation, Licensed under CC.

Sadly, despite these top local tips, we’re unlikely to be able to compete, or even come close, to the costumes that will be only display during the Mardi Gras. With some people spending months preparing, and up to $10,000 on their costumes, the best we can manage is a funny wig and some feathers.

At least we did better than this guy.

Photo by Bart Everson, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Bart Everson, Licensed under CC.

If you don’t have time, though, concentrate on collecting throws during the parades to add to your costume collection.

What’s a Throw?

Photo by Mark Gstolh, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Mark Gstolh, Licensed under CC.

  • During the Mardi Gras parades, the Krewes on the floats with toss and ‘throw’ trinkets and toys to the crowds. These cheap items originated from the throwing of glass beads as early as the late 19th Century.
  • Recently the throws have been made from plastic and imported from lower cost manufacturing countries like China.
  • In a surprising twist, glass beads are again finding use, becoming more valuable and coveted throws.
  • The most valuable throw is a coconut, known as the Golden Nugget.
  • There are many ways to obtain a throw, some of them being rather, as the kids say these days, Not Safe For Work.

There is so much history to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans

It is no exaggeration that it takes a lot of time to wrap your head around all of the concepts of the Mardi Gras parade season in New Orleans.

There are Krewes, Floats and Float Dens, Kings, Chiefs, Flag Boys, Zulus – the Knights of Sparta! There’s not just the meaning behind these words to learn; there is the long traditions of the Mardi Gras that are carried into today from hundreds of years ago, along with more recent history that resonates with the growth and changes in New Orleans and America. By studying the Mardi Gras in New Orleans we can learn about the tensions and creativity that have carried the city to it’s highs and lows.

The Louisiana State Museum has an exhibition cataloguing that history, with costumes and even an invitation from almost the very beginning of it all. It’s a lot to take in but we’re beginning to wrap our heads around some of the concepts.

What’s a Krewe?

Think of it a bit like a secret society – these clubs join forces and resources every year to create elaborate floats and costumes for the Mardi parades. With varying membership rules and history, the Krewes take their lineage from the Mistick Krewe of Comus who first appeared in 1857. Since then, Krewes have grown, evolved, disappeared, fought, and competed to put on elaborate balls, and create theatrical and even satirical parade contributions.

Time for the Parades

The main thing to understand about the Mardi Gras festival is that it isn’t just one day. This is a multi-week event that, although interrupted by this year’s Super Bowl, takes place in the streets or New Orleans over many days but more than this, that takes place in the homes and amongst the local residents of the city.

It has an infectious excitement and as we make our way to the parade route for tonight’s festival, it is easy to get lost in the cacaphony of colour and noise.

Photo by Paul Mannix, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Paul Mannix, Licensed under CC.

There are two Krewes parading tonight; first up is the Krewe of Ancient Druids, an order that adheres to strict principles of secrecy, and following them is the Mystic Krewe of Nyx – an all-female Krewe. Both are relatively new Krewes (especially compared to some – even the Knights of Sparta started in 1950 and they’re considered middle-aged).

Both these Krewes are following the same route, which is fortunate for us – we can find a good spot along the parade route and watch the fun as it noisily passes by.

For an at-home experience of the sounds of the Mardi Gras parade, check out this album.

 Travel Tip for Mardi Gras in New Orleans:

  • Stick to routes that you know, with plenty of people around. It is mostly safe but don’t wander off into places you’re not familiar with.
  • A common con is being sold a ticket to Mardi Gras. No tickets are needed for the street parades
  • Unless you’re up for that sort of thing, avoid Bourbon Street. There are no parades through that area of town, and it is largely filled with drunk and silly tourists.

So, what’s the deal with people flashing?

“People throw beads down to women and men who are flashing”

As New Orleans local Laura Martone explains in this interview on Gadling, Throws, which we mentioned earlier, attain a kind of cult status during the Mardi Gras season. Even though they’re only cheap plastic (except for the coveted Coconut) they become an object of desire, and, in a frequently inebriated state, you’ll find many tourists flashing Krewes and people on balconies to win more throw trophies. Technically, it’s illegal, and keep in mind that if you’re going to flash, chances are high your photo will end up online.

Photo by Larry Johnson, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Larry Johnson, Licensed under CC.

What are your tips for enjoying the Mardi Gras festival season in New Orleans? Tell us in the comments.