What is Mardi Gras? New Orleans Carnival FAQs

What is Mardi Gras? We’re glad you asked 😉

Maybe you think of a parade or Bourbon Street or have some vague notion of a wild Tuesday sometime in February. (Or is it March?) That barely scratches the surface of this magical ode to utter decadence. But, it’s also a complicated holiday unlike any other in the U.S. We do our best to answer the question “What is Mardi Gras?” so you know what to expect – and what to celebrate! – during Carnival time. 

Krewe of Bosom Buddies and Breast Friends can be seen Feb 21, 2020

What we call it: Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras or Carnival are interchangeable terms for the party. And they refer to both Mardi Gras Day (this year, that’s Feb. 25) and the whole season leading up to it. 

What it celebrates: While you won’t see religious overtones at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, it is a Catholic holiday. It ends at the beginning of Lent, a period of abstinence Catholics practice before Easter Sunday. Basically, Fat Tuesday is the final day of wild partying before folks in New Orleans try to be good for 40 days straight. It usually falls sometime in February.

When it starts: Mardi Gras season always starts 12 days after Christmas, on Jan. 6 (which is called 12th Night). There are a handful of small parades that kick off the season on this day every year, and it’s the first time we start eating king cake.

French quarter journal
The Joan of Arc Parade is one of a handful that always kick off Carnival season on Jan. 6th (12th Night) Click the image above to see more from the 2020 Parade at the French Quarter Journal.

When to visit: That depends on what you want! The season starts slowly on Jan. 6. By two weeks before Mardi Gras Day, there are fun foot parades and masquerade balls every weekend, including some local favorites. The biggest parties and parades – what most visitors think of as “Mardi Gras” – begins in earnest the Wednesday before Mardi Gras Day. 

Who puts it on: We do! And you’re officially invited to The Greatest Free Show on Earth! Every parade, party and ball is put on by social clubs called krewes. Some are huge and have massive, motorized floats and throw parties that fill the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Others are smaller foot parades with elaborately crafted costumes and hilarious themes. 

How to Participate: All parades are free and open to the public. You can pay for seats in a grandstand, but mostly people just stand and watch. Here is the list of parades for 2020 and some of the hundreds of Carnival parties you can attend.

Parades are free and open to the public.

What to bring: Comfy shoes, your costume closet and a desire to have more fun than you’ve ever had in your entire life. Costumes are encouraged; families are welcome. We are all here to pass a good time together!

Where to stay: New Orleans in a fascinating and diverse place, and every neighborhood has it’s own flavor of Mardi Gras. Here’s our rundown of neighborhoods depending on what you’re looking for.

How’d we do? So, what is Mardi Gras? We hope you can answer that question now. But if we missed anything, feel free to ask in the comments. We love this holiday more than anything, and want to make sure you have as great a time as we do!

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