Mardi Gras isn’t all nudity and drunken debauchery (though, yes, there is definitely nudity and drunken debauchery). From King Cakes to Mardi Gras Indians, TIME takes a look at the unique traditions of New Orleans’ Carnival season.
Literally meaning “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras is the culmination of a weeks-long Carnival season that ends on Ash Wednesday. While impromptu foot and horseback parades had been a regular New Orleans occurrence for decades, it was in 1857 that the first “krewe” — private groups with semi-mythological namesakes that organize thematic parades — was established. This 1879 picture details a parade by Rex, an all-male krewe whose leader is known as the “King of Carnival.” The Krewe of Rex established the official Mardi Gras colors of green, gold, and purple.
With it’s mixture of Caribbean, Spanish, and French influences, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras adopted the latter nation’s affinity for masked balls and celebrations. In a little more than 150 years, Mardi Gras has only been canceled about a dozen times, typically for disease (yellow fever in the late 1870s) or conflict (the Civil War and both World Wars).
The hierarchy of New Orleans society is on full display during Mardi Gras. In the past, Krewes were often private organizations that held formal, ritzy balls closed to the public. When the city council passed a 1992 ordinance that required krewes to be more inclusive, three of the oldest groups disbanded rather than give up their exclusivity. One of the more inclusive — if ostentatious — traditions is the presentation of the Mardi Gras King and Queen, such as in this 1941 picture.
100 Years Strong
White New Orleans society wasn’t the only group that celebrated Carnival. The city’s significant African American community, subject to its fair share of segregation, started parading in 1909. Named Zulu, after the African tribe, it is said to have been founded in mocking response to the highfalutin Rex parades. In 1949, the Zulu Krewe was the first to crown a celebrity king, Louis Armstrong. And while it experienced a period of profound unpopularity among socially-minded African Americans in the 1960s — Zulu parade participants wore blackface — it effectively integrated Mardi Gras when its parade rolled down New Orleans’ main thoroughfares. Previously, it had been limited to back streets in black neighborhoods. Today, the Zulu Krewe, which rolls on Fat Tuesday, puts on one of the season’s most popular parades.
Light My Fire
Nighttime Mardi Gras parades feature flame-wielding “flambeaux carriers,” who harken back to days when streets were not as well-lit. Interspersed between the elaborate parade floats, which are now themselves brightly lit, the flambeaux carriers spin, twirl and dip their bodies — all while keeping their torches aflame. Most carriers were initially slaves and free African Americans, and the tradition of tossing them coins continues to this day.
A Family Affair
Many Americans associate Mardi Gras with drunken debauchery and women baring their breasts for cheap colored beads. But most of the season’s celebrations take place outside of the raucous French Quarter, in family-filled neighborhoods such as the tree-lined Garden District. There, parents and kids await daytime parades, many utilizing modified ladders with seats on top. There, children are ideally positioned to catch beads and other “throws” — plastic coins, stuffed animals, cups, Frisbees, etc. — from passing floats. During Carnival season, tree branches along popular parade routes are often covered with hanging sets of gaudily colored beads
A Rowdy Affair
OK, Mardi Gras’ reputation as an alcohol-fueled, nudity-filled bacchanal is not completely unearned. In 1973, a ban was established on Krewe parades in the increasingly rowdy and narrow streets of the French Quarter. In subsequent years, tourists and other drunken fools descended on the Quarter (especially the particularly saucy Bourbon Street) en masse, and the tradition of showing skin for beads began. Native New Orleanians despise the reputation, and rarely venture into the Quarter during Carnival season.
Don’t Eat the Baby
In a city well renowned for its food culture, the act of purchasing a King Cake is a beloved part of Mardi Gras. Sold only during the Carnival season, king cake is a large braided Danish pastry, typically spiced with cinnamon and covered with green, purple, and gold sugar, corresponding to Mardi Gras’ colors. Socked away inside the cake is a tiny plastic baby, and whoever discovers the little tyke in their slice is required to buy the next king cake (or host the next party).
One of New Orleans’ more unique sights is that of two Mardi Gras Indian tribes facing off on a street corner. The Indians are said to be a way for African Americans to pay tribute to Native Americans who helped their slave ancestors escape their masters. New Orleans is home to dozens of Mardi Gras Indian tribes, who each have their own special chain of command and who spend an entire year working on their elaborate feathered and beaded costumes, each of which is worn only once during Mardi Gras season. When two tribes encounter each other, a ritualized, theatrical performance full of chanting, singing, dancing, and bluster ensues.
After Hurricane Katrina slammed into the city in August, 2005, many thought that Mardi Gras would have to be postponed for the first time since World War II. Residents, however, would hear nothing of it. Absent all the fancy trappings, the city held an abbreviated Carnival whose official parades rolled through the less devastated areas of New Orleans. This unofficial parade, however, marched through the ruined lakeside neighborhood of Gentilly. While the city’s population has not yet returned to pre-Katrina levels, Mardi Gras celebrations have grown unabated.