New Orleans’s carnival season – which starts on Twelfth Night, January 6, and runs for the six weeks or so until Ash Wednesday – is unlike any other in the world. Though the name is used to define the entire season, Mardi Gras itself, French for “Fat Tuesday”, is simply the culmination of a whirl of parades, parties, street revels and masked balls, all tied up with the city’s labyrinthine social, racial and political structures.

Official carnival took its current form in 1857. At this time, the concept of the “krewes”, or secret carnival clubs, was taken up enthusiastically by the New Orleans aristocracy, many of them white supremacists who, after the Civil War, used their satirical float designs and the shroud of secrecy to mock and undermine Reconstruction. Nowadays about fifty official krewes equip colourful floats, leading huge processions with different, often mythical, themes.

Each krewe is reigned over by a King and Queen, who go on to preside over the organization’s closed, masked balls. There are women-only krewes, enormous “super krewes”, and important African American groups. The best known and most significant of these is Zulu, established in 1909 when a black man mocked Rex, King of Carnival, by sporting a banana stalk sceptre and a tin can on his head. Today the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning is one of the most popular of the season (and the krewe’s coconut throws some of the festival’s most coveted). There are also many alternative, or unofficial krewes, including the anarchic Krewe du Vieux (from Vieux Carré, another term for the French Quarter), whose irreverent parade and “ball” (a polite term for a wild party, open to all) is a blast. The gay community plays a major part in Mardi Gras, particularly in the French Quarter, where the streets teem with strutting drag divas. And then there’s the parade of the Mystic Krewe of Barkus, made up of dogs, hundreds of them, all spiffed up on some spurious theme.

Tourists are less likely to witness the spectacular Mardi Gras Indians, African American groups who gather on Mardi Gras morning to compete in chanting and dancing dressed in fabulous beaded and feathered costumes – sewed themselves over the previous year. For a chance of seeing the Indians, head to the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Tremé on Mardi Gras morning; this is also the meeting place for other black Mardi Gras groups including the “skeleton” gangs, who don bloody butcher’s aprons and “wake the day” at dawn by beating bones on drums, and the Baby Dolls, grown women frolicking around in silky bonnets and bloomers.

Another New Orleans Mardi Gras ritual is the flinging of “throws”. Teasing masked krewe members scatter beads, toys and doubloons (coins) from parade floats into the crowds, who beg, plead and scream for them.

The two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras are filled with processions, parties and balls. The fun starts early on Mardi Gras day, with walking clubs striding through uptown accompanied by raucous jazz on their ritualized bar crawls, and the skeletons gathering in Tremé. Zulu’s big parade, in theory, sets off at 8.30am (but can be as much as 2hr late), followed by Rex. Across town, the Indians are gathering for their sacred Mardi Gras rituals, while the arty St Ann walking parade sets off from the Bywater to arrive in the Marigny at around 11am. Anyone is welcome to join them, as long as they are wearing something creative and/or surreal. The gay costume competition known as the Bourbon Street awards gets going at noon in the Quarter, while hipsters head back to the Marigny, where Frenchmen Street is ablaze with lavishly costumed carousers. The fun continues until midnight, when a siren wail heralds the arrival of a cavalcade of mounted police that sweeps through Bourbon Street and declares through megaphones that Mardi Gras is officially over.

Other New Orleans festivals

St Joseph’s Day
(March 19). Sicilian saint’s day, at the midpoint of Lent. Altars of food are erected in churches all around town, and there’s a parade. Celebrated in conjunction with the holiday, on the third Sunday in March (“Super Sunday”) the Mardi Gras Indians (see Entertainment and nightlife) take to the streets – their only official parade outside Mardi Gras.
French Quarter Festival
(early April; fqfi.org). Superb free four-day music festival that rivals Jazz Fest for the quality and variety of music – and food – on offer.
Jazz Fest
(two weekends, Fri–Sun & Thurs–Sun, end April/early May; nojazzfest.com). Enormous festival at the Fairgrounds Race Track, Mid-City, with stages hosting jazz, R&B, gospel, Afro-Caribbean, Cajun, blues and more, and evening performances in clubs all over town. Also features crafts and phenomenal food stands.
Southern Decadence
(six days around Labor Day weekend; southerndecadence.net). Huge gay extravaganza, bringing around 100,000 party animals to the Quarter, with a costume parade of thousands on the Sunday afternoon.
Halloween
(Oct 31). Thanks to the local passion for dressing up, New Orleans is a fabulous place to spend Halloween, with haunted houses, costume competitions, ghost tours and parades all over town.
Voodoo Experience
(Halloween weekend; worshipthemusic.com). Three-day rock festival held in City Park with two hundred acts – from Nine Inch Nails to Calvin Harris, plus an eclectic span of local bands – performing to a mixed, high-spirited, Halloween-costumed crowd.

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