What is Mardi Gras? It's the culmination of the season of Carnival, which starts on January 6, and is the 12th day of Christmas. Carnival is the period of feasting before Lent that ends with Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. In the larger cities of Louisiana, Carnival is celebrated in a more famous way, via the Krewes—or social organizations—who hold balls and pick their King and Queen each year. Each Krewe picks a theme for their floats, and their costumes reflect that theme. In the two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, the colorful parades begin, where the participants throw beads and other gifts to the screaming crowds.
Krewes got their start as a reaction to overenthusiastic party animals! Within two decades after the French explorer Bienville LeMoyne founded New Orleans in 1718, the city’s annual celebrations of Carnival had become an annual event, complete with masked balls and other festivities. Parades commemorating Mardi Gras officially began in 1838. By 1857, however, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations had become so marred by drunkenness and violence that city officials were about to do away with them. Instead, several members of a group known as the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, which had held a parade annually on New Year’s Eve since the 1830s, stepped forward. They proposed forming a new private club that would stage its own Mardi Gras parade as an orderly alternative to the chaos that currently existed. They called their new organization the Mystick Krewe of Comus (the Greek god of revelry). Today, more than 70 Krewes parade through New Orleans on Mardi Gras, after celebrating the two weeks of Carnival with invitation-only balls and supper dances.