If you visit Louisiana during carnival season, the Mardi Gras parades and festivities may capture your imagination. The Mardi Gras season takes place during the weeks prior to Lent, when, traditionally, the Catholic church encourages adherents to party before the strictures of Lent begin. The Louisiana carnival season provides residents and visitors with the opportunity to enjoy joyous Mardi Gras events.
History of the Carnival Season
Early French explorers and settlers introduced the Mardi Gras festivities to Louisiana. Mardi Gras, which has medieval European roots, took the form of processions in the early 18th century. The infusion of "Cajuns" -- French Canadians -- into Louisiana strengthened the Mardi Gras tradition throughout the area. New Orleans society stated celebrating Mardi Gras as society balls in the 18th century and by the early 19th century the city saw carnivals and parades that involved many different communities. Other Louisiana cities developed their own Mardi Gras traditions.
The Mardi Gras season begins on the 12th night after Christmas. The season stretches through until Fat Tuesday, 47 days before Easter Sunday. On the first night of the season, families and communities celebrate a Kings Party by preparing "King's Cakes." These cakes contain a small figurine of a baby in commemoration of the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to Baby Jesus on his 12th day. The person who receives the piece of cake with the baby hosts the following year's King's Cake Party. During the following month-and-a-half, the Mardi Gras carnival season commences with parades and other events. All of these events lead up to the final Mardi Gras festivities and grand parade, which takes place on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras Day, which precedes Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Krewes, Kings and Balls
The tradition of forming "krewes," or societies, originated during the early years of Mardi Gras celebration. These krewes were once private social clubs, though today, krewes are parade organizations whose members fund the krewe activities. In preparation for the annual Mardi Gras carnival season, the krewes construct floats. Members wear costumes and ride the floats while throwing treats and trinkets to parade bystanders. Beads are customary "throws" during the processions. Each krewe selects its own king, with the "official" Mardi Gras king, "Rex," selected by the School of Design, which sponsors the Rex parade. Each krewe reveals its king's identity on the day before its parade. Various societies continue to hold balls, both public and private, throughout the Mardi Gras season. Some balls are quite formal and elaborate and the societies strictly limit invitations.
Colors and Masks
Purple, green and gold signify Mardi Gras carnival season in Louisiana. Many participants wear Mardi Gras colors when they do not have their costumes on. All float riders must wear masks during their parades. On Mardi Gras Day, "Fat Tuesday," everyone wears a mask.
Louisiana Mardi Gras Locations
New Orleans hosted the first Mardi Gras carnival season in Louisiana, and the New Orleans celebrations continue to serve as a focal point for Mardi Gras festivities in the United States. Other Louisiana localities also celebrate the Mardi Gras carnival season, including St. Charles in southwest Louisiana, Baton Rouge in central Louisiana and Shreveport-Bossier in northwest Louisiana.
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