From Mobile, Ala., to New Orleans and all through the surrounding Gulf coastal countryside, Christmas is hardly over before the next party begins.
Carnival--the magic word that conjures visions of singing, dancing and costumed gaiety--comes from the Latin for "removal of meat," or perhaps "farewell to flesh." Since the earliest days of Christianity, it has signified the weeks preceding the penitential 40 days of Lent, during which the faithful denied themselves all pleasures of the flesh in preparation for Easter.
The season of Carnival officially begins on Jan. 6, the Twelfth Day of Christmas or Twelfth Night, also known as the Feast of the Magi, the day when the three kings are believed to have presented their gifts to the newborn Christ child.
In New Orleans, the day is celebrated with the first Carnival party and the first "King Cake," a moist, rich delicacy filled with nuts and bits of sticky fruit peel. Drizzled with sweet white icing, the cake is decorated with tinted sugar in the classic Carnival colors of purple, green and gold, symbolizing justice, faith and power. Hidden somewhere inside this heavenly confection is a tiny plastic baby, and whoever finds it is responsible for the next week's cake and party.
Carnival season may be as short as three and a half weeks or as long as two months, depending on the date of Easter. Like other festivals of old, that date is determined by the ancient lunar calendar and falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.
As the rigors of Lent approach, Carnival gathers momentum with ever grander balls, parties and street parades until finally Mardi Gras arrives. The day after, on Ash Wednesday, the time of fasting and austerity begins, but "Fat Tuesday" is devoted wholeheartedly to meat, music and merriment.
It is likely that Mardi Gras has been celebrated in North America since 1699, when the French explorer D'Iberville and a homesick group of colonists pitched temporary camp on a mud bank 30 miles north of the Mississippi Delta and named it Bayou Mardi Gras. Soon public parades and private masquerade balls were traditional events and occasions for raucous revelry throughout the colony.
In the 1830s, the first official parade group was formed in Mobile, Ala. Calling themselves the Cowbellions, members sent to Paris for their costumes. Not to be outdone, a group of socially prominent New Orleans young blades formed a secret society in 1857 and gave a ball to which only the elite were invited. A new Mardi Gras was born. Although the hostilities of the 1860s interrupted the festivities, Carnival was resumed again in 1866.
A century later, the "Krewes," the parades and the balls have proliferated, and Mardi Gras and New Orleans have become synonymous. Preparing the floats is a yearlong project, and each Krewe's theme is a jealously guarded secret.
From dawn to midnight on Fat Tuesday, the streets are jammed with masked revelers. Bands blare along the parade routes, parents hold their children up to see better and anyone can become royalty for a day. As each float passes, the waiting crowds shout, "Gimme something, mister!" and the masked riders shower the spectators with noisemakers, beads and "gold" doubloons. Shouts of joie de vivre (joy of life) fill the air, while juicy muffaletta sandwiches and crunchy oyster Po' Boys fill the hands and mouths of young and old alike.
When the parades have all gone by and darkness descends, the balls begin. Entry is by invitation only (invitations are worth their weight in gold), and to dance one must be formally "called out" by a masked member of the Krewe. As the night wears on, Rex and his court depart to go salute Comus, the older monarch.
The grand march follows with a promenade of both royal retinues, and officially, the city's Mardi Gras is over. Die-hard all-night revelers continue to straggle through the streets, eventually making their way to favorite coffee spots for sugary, crisp beignets and steaming hot cups of cafe au lait.
The Little-Known Rural Side of Mardi Gras
There is another, rural face to Mardi Gras. While the city folk and throngs of tourists ogle spangle-bedecked floats and masquers, quite a different celebration takes place deep in the heart of Louisiana's Bayou country.
In the waning darkness of Mardi Gras morning, Cajuns have risen to the aroma of savory bowls of Coush Coush swimming in butter and cane syrup, homemade buttermilk biscuits covered with spicy andouille sausage gravy and steaming cups of chicory-laced, black-as-ink coffee. This hearty breakfast is absolutely necessary for the rigors of the morning ahead.