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NASP 2016 Convention News

Mardi Gras 101: Laissez Les Bons Temps Roulet!

Volume 44 Issue 2

Attending Mardi Gras is not necessary in order to come to the convention and enjoy a great time in New Orleans. The convention officially starts after the festivities end, and there is plenty of fabulous fun to have in the city without having to wear a mask. However, for those of you who want to experience the revelry and romance of one of the most famous celebrations in the world, it helps to know a little about it.

A (Very) Brief History

Mardi Gras has roots as far back as the revelers in ancient Rome and a history that encompasses Roman emperors; the Medieval Christian church; the Catholic church; bals masqués, or masked balls, in Renaissance Italy; French culture, kings, and explorers; and a Russian grand duke. The first Mardi Gras pageant took place in 1857. Since then, New Orleans has staged more than 1,800 Mardis Gras parades and, in 2015, the city will celebrate its 168th Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras—A Season, Not Just a Day

Contrary to popular belief, Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is actually a multiday carnival season that starts each year on January 6, the Twelfth Night feast of the Epiphany—the day the three kings visited baby Jesus. Fat Tuesday (February 9, 2016) is the culminating day of the season, a date set by the Catholic Church to occur the day before the penitential season of Lent.

Twenty-nine parades are expected to roll in 2016, with even more filling the streets of several of the city's suburbs. The New Orleans parading fun starts on Wednesday, January 6, and culminates with the traditional line-up of Zulu, Rex, Elks, and Crescent City (all krewes) on Fat Tuesday, February 9. Conference rates at convention hotels begin on Saturday, February 6, and those of us staying in the convention hotels will have a ringside seat to catch all the beads, doubloons, and carnival spirit! Between Saturday and Fat Tuesday, more than a dozen krewes will ride the traditional parade route through the heart of the city, from Napoleon Avenue to St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street. The most famous “superkrewes,” including Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpheus, parade the weekend before Fat Tuesday. Each of these parades hosts celebrity Grand Marshals and Monarchs. Some of the celebrities in 2015 included John C. Reilly, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Lee Ann Rimes, and the Beach Boys. In addition to all of the parades that will be rolling, there is a huge Lundi Gras (Fat Monday) celebration along the Riverwalk that features a ceremony welcoming the Kings of Zulu as well as live music, food, and a fireworks display. In fact, Lundi Gras is widely known as “The Greatest Free Show on Earth.”

The Krewes

Mardi Gras organizations are nonprofit clubs called krewes, and many are named after mythological figures such as Aphrodite, Eros, Hermes, Pegasus, and Thor. Each krewe is completely autonomous, and there is no overall coordinator of Carnival activities. The 15–37 floats in each procession are designed to illustrate the parade's theme, and the maskers are costumed to reflect the title of each float. Mardi Gras parades are more than just floats. A 200-member parading krewe may actually have 3,000 participants, including band members, motorcycle groups, dance teams, clown units, and others. A Carnival krewe is led by the captain, who is the permanent leader of the group. Each year, a king and queen are selected to reign over the parade.

What to Do and Wear

The single custom that most distinguishes Mardi Gras parades is that of throws—trinkets tossed from the floats—which turn New Orleans parades into crowd participation events unmatched anywhere. “Throw Me Something Mister” is the battle cry of the million-plus people who line the parade routes. Most popular among the millions of throws are those that illustrate the organization's logo and the parade's theme, including plastic drinking cups, medallion necklaces, and colorful aluminum coins called doubloons.

Aside from decorating yourself with the throws from the floats, join the locals and don a funky wig or mask to get into the carnival spirit. There are lots of shops in the French Quarter and booths along the French Market where you will find plenty of supplies to put together the costume of your dreams. The most elaborate costumes make their debut on Fat Tuesday and cover the gamut from political satire to outrageous fantasy.

About the King Cakes

King cakes also have their roots in medieval Europe, when a tiny bean was placed in the cake (as a sign of fertility), and whichever female found the bean was crowned queen of the carnival. The French Catholics substituted a tiny baby Jesus for the medieval bean. Today most king cakes are made of brioche pastry shaped into an open circle like a crown and decorated with jewel-like sugars, and are made and served only between January 6 (the Feast of the Three Kings) and Mardi Gras.

Additional information on Mardi Gras is available on the NASP website at www.nasponline.org/conventions.