When Mardi Gras and Carnival roll around, New Orleanians are usually asked one common question from the out-of-towners: "Can I crash at your place?" Although we can't offer lodging, this list should help out with all those other questions, like what is Mardi Gras? What do I wear? Can I bring my kids?
Read up on the most festive of holidays. What questions are you still burning to have answered?
What is Mardi Gras and why is it celebrated?
Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility. When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate the popular tradition into the new faith, so the excess and debauchery of the Carnival season became a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Mardi Gras marks the final day of feasting and revelry before the fasting, prayer and moderation of Lent. So, in its most basic form, Carnival and Mardi Gras is all about overindulging.
The first Carnival season made its way to the United States via the French. Many historians say the first American Mardi Gras was on March 3, 1699, when French explorers Bienville and Iberville landed in Louisiana. As the years passed, the holiday became more lavish -- and more festive.
The first recorded New Orleans Carnival parade occurred in 1827, when a group of students in colorful costumes danced through the streets.
In New Orleans today, the early weeks of Carnival are marked with elaborate balls. These balls, which are invitation-only, celebrate the chosen royalty for each krewe, or private club, and also serve as a "coming out" for the season's crop of debutantes, the daughters of the city's social scions.
The final weeks, mainly the two leading up to Mardi Gras, are packed with street parades featuring bands, marching groups and large floats packed with costumed riders throwing beads and other trinkets to the masses in the streets. Weekly king cake parties are held in neighborhoods, schools and offices.
By Ash Wednesday, New Orleanians are back at work, albeit a little sluggishly.
Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, or the beginning of Lent. The term refers to the last chance to eat rich, fatty foods -- and for many, the last chance to drink copious amounts of alcohol -- before the Lenten season and its penance, which for many includes giving up something for the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter.
A common misconception is that Mardi Gras is the name for all of the revelry that begins Jan. 6 and continues through Ash Wednesday. This season of revelry is called Carnival; Mardi Gras is the culmination of it all.
The day Carnival season officially begins, Jan. 6, is the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night or Kings Day. Traditionally, this is the day the first king cakes are eaten.
What is king cake all about?
King cakes are traditionally served for the first time on Jan. 6, or Kings Day, and are enjoyed throughout the Carnival season. A traditional king cake is a braided cinnamon-laced brioche-like cake topped with icing and colored sugars: purple, green and gold, symbolizing justice, faith and power.
Many bakeries now offer king cakes with fillings of fruit, cream cheese, even chocolate. A small plastic baby is placed inside the cake to symbolize the baby Jesus; the person who gets the piece of cake with the baby is responsible for buying the next king cake, usually within the next week.
Other cultures celebrate Jan. 6 with king cakes as well: In England in the early 19th century, for example, people would eat bits of the "twelfth night cake" in hopes of finding a bean or pea. Whoever found the bean would get to masquerade as a king or queen for the night. In some Spanish-speaking countries, beans or peas are still used.
Is New Orleans the only place Mardi Gras is celebrated?
Absolutely not! New Orleans might have the biggest parades and biggest parties throughout the Carnival season, but other cities across Louisiana, including Baton Rouge, join in on the fun. Mobile, Ala., also holds a big Mardi Gras celebration.
Outside Louisiana, the most well-known festivals are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Cologne, Germany; and Italy.
In Baton Rouge, what's with all the flamingos at the parades?
Pink flamingos are an integral part of the Spanish Town Parade, which rolls the weekend before Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge. Flamingos are the somewhat official mascot of the Spanish Town residents. Residents of this historic Baton Rouge community have traditionally bonded over their differences, a fact those residents are proud to recognize.
"Today, the neighborhood still has a unique sense of community -- a sense of difference. To symbolize our difference from the rest of Baton Rouge, my neighbors and I have adopted the pink flamingo as our mascot," writes Jocelyn Donlon on The Spanish Town Mardi Gras website.
Spanish Town was planned in 1805 and is the oldest neighborhood in Baton Rouge. The area is marked by narrow streets, old buildings, little parking and lots of history.
Is Mardi Gras family-friendly?
"Everybody I know brings their kids to the Quarter and the Marigny on Fat Tuesday. It's a very fun, family time in costume. It's easy to steer away from Bourbon Street crowds when you have a stroller and a good costume," says Chris Waddington, a NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune staff writer.
He's right. Not only are kids OK -- with discretion -- in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras, but the whole Carnival season is kid-friendly. Most parades are family-friendly. In fact, the Uptown parade route and the suburban parades are packed with families that build their whole days around the Carnival parade schedule.
Although crowds can get tight and there is the occasional bad egg, much of the boozy crowds stick to Bourbon Street, which is home to the huge drag queen contest, where costumes are elaborate, and often fairly raunchy. And contrary to the beliefs of many Mardi Gras novices, women aren't likely to bare all in family-friendly areas.
What's a krewe and how do I join one?
A Mardi Gras krewe is an organization that puts on a parade and/or a ball during the Carnival season. Krewe members pay annual dues, which finance the krewe's activities. Many krewes also participate in public service projects throughout the year in New Orleans.
Is there a dress code for a Mardi Gras ball? What about for parades?
The traditional Mardi Gras ball is a lavish affair, calling for floor-length gowns for women and tuxedos for men.
For the parades leading up to Mardi Gras, it's casual, comfortable attire.
On Mardi Gras, however, costuming is expected. Many New Orleanians go for the satirical, the ironic, the bizarre or just something pretty. Costumes are by no means a requirement, but Mardi Gras is a great time to join the fun. Often, families or groups of friends will don a group-themed costume. Often, the best costumes tend to riff on current events.
Can I go to a Mardi Gras ball?
That depends on whom you know. Most balls are invitation-only events, though tickets for some of the newer krewes' balls are available to the public for a steep fee. The Rex ball, for example, is invitation-only, but the Krewe of Endymion and the Krewe of Cleopatra offer tickets to their parties, which include live music, dancing, food and drink.
What's with the beads?
Parade-goers in New Orleans aren't just spectators; they are full participants in the spectacle. Each parade krewe is expected to toss beads and other trinkets from their floats, which means parade-goers go home with bags of loot. There are urban legends of New Orleanians having to reinforce their attics to support the weight of the beads caught during Carnival.
Beads refers to the strands of colored plastic or glass beads tossed from the float riders.
A word of caution: Beads are worn only during Carnival, and then, only if you've just come from a parade. Tourists identify themselves by wearing beads in the off-season.