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Mardi Gras Madness: What's it all about?

“Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods and our joy of living. All at once.”

– Chris Rose, The Times-Picayune, December 2005

New Orleans’ favorite season is coming to a close – not Thanksgiving, not Christmas, but Mardi Gras! If you’re anywhere near the Gulf Coast (or if you have friends in the area), no doubt you’ve seen pictures of decadent King Cakes popping up all over Facebook and Instagram. But maybe you have no idea what in the world I’m talking about. Allow me to shed some light on the situation.

Each year in New Orleans and some of the surrounding areas, we celebrate what is called the Carnival season – beginning on January 6 (think back to the “12th day of Christmas” heralded in carols) and culminating in Mardi Gras Day, the day before the Lenten season begins. In New Orleans, we celebrate this block of time with parties, way too much food, and for the two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras Day, parades throughout the city.

When did Mardi Gras begin?

This is a tricky question, since the history of the celebration seems to have ties to traditions predating the 17th century, but the first Mardi Gras parade in America was held in New Orleans in 1857. (Sorry, Alabama friends! Folks in Mobile didn’t start parading during the traditional Carnival season until 1866.)

How are Mardi Gras parades different from parades in other towns, like for 4th of July and Christmas?

New Orleans parades involve bands, families, elaborate costumes, and huge floats. The biggest difference, though, is that crowd participation is a must at Mardi Gras parades. People on the floats toss out trinkets and prizes to those in the crowd – strands of beads, plastic decorated cups, painted coconuts, and more! The list of what is handed out at parades grows longer and more elaborate year after year.

Is Mardi Gras like what we see on TV?

Absolutely not! While Bourbon Street has long been a draw to tourists from all over the world, the majority of Mardi Gras is both G-rated and celebrated outside of the French Quarter area. As Arthur Hardy, a local historian puts it, “Unfortunately, the wild antics of visiting coeds on Bourbon Street…have gained such publicity that they have become the national image of Mardi Gras.”

The Restoration Initiative’s mission statement is to “expand possibilities, instill character, and build reconciled relationships.” If we have any hope of doing that here in New Orleans, it begins with engaging the culture and loving the people of NOLA well. At Restoration Journeys, that’s our goal – to help visiting mission teams learn how to love a city well. At the end of the day, even though our city may look very different from yours, especially in the way we celebrate, the ways in which we interact with our cities and represent Christ look very, very similar.

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