New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations draw hundreds of thousands of tourists to the city to mingle with the locals at the famed parties and parades. As many as a half-million spectators have been estimated by officials to line the route of major parades. The first Mardi Gras festivities in Louisiana were held on March 3, 1699. On that day, a group of French explorers set up camp on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about 60 miles downriver from what is now New Orleans. The group's leader, Pierre Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville dubbed the spot La Pointe du Mardi Gras. Three hundred years later, the Rex organization put a marker at the site.
An account from 1743 notes that the custom of holding Carnival balls was established by that date, during the time whenBienville was governor. On Mardi Gras, there were masques and processions in the streets of the city, although they were, at times, prohibited by law. The celebrations were quickly resumed whenever restrictions were lifted or the enforcement of them was lax. In 1833, Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville, a rich plantation owner, raised the money to fund an official Mardi Gras celebration.
On Mardi Gras of 1857 the Mistick Krewe of Comus held its first parade. Comus is the oldest continuously active Mardi Gras organization. It originated a number of traditions that continue today (such as the use of floats in parades) and is considered the first Carnival krewe in the modern sense of the term.
In 1875 the state of Louisiana declared Mardi Gras a legal holiday. Economic, political, and weather conditions sometimes led to the cancellation of some or all of the major parades, especially during the American Civil War, World War I and World War II, but Carnival has always been observed in the city in some way.
The last large parades went through the narrow streets of the city's old French Quarter neighborhood in 1972. Larger floats and crowds and safety concerns led the city government to prohibit big parades in the Quarter.
In 1991, the New Orleans city council passed an ordinance that required social organizations, including Mardi Gras Krewes, to certify publicly that they did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, in order to obtain parade permits and other public licenses. The ordinance required these and other private social groups to abandon their traditional code of secrecy and identify their members for the city's Human Relations Commission. In protest, the 19th century krewes Comus and Momus stopped parading. Proteus did parade in the 1992 Carnival season, but returned to the parade schedule in 2000. Two federal courts later declared that the ordinance was an unconstitutional infringement on First Amendment rights of free association, and an unwarranted intrusion on the privacy of the groups subject to the ordinance. The Supreme Court refused to hear the city's appeal of their decision. Today, many krewes operate under a business structure – membership is open to anyone who pays dues to have a place on a parade float.
The effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in late 2005 caused a few people to question the future of the city's Mardi Gras celebrations. The city government, essentially bankrupt after the storm, pushed for a massively scaled back celebration to limit strains on city services. However, many krewes insisted that they wanted to and would be ready to parade, so negotiations between krewe leaders and city officials resulted in a compromise schedule, scaled back but less severely than originally suggested. The 2006 New Orleans' Carnival schedule included the Krewe du Vieux on its traditional route through Marigny and the French Quarter on February 11, then several parades on Saturday, the 18th, and Sunday the 19th, followed by six days of parades starting Thursday night, the 23rd, until Mardi Gras Day, the 28th. Other than Krewe du Vieux and two Westbank parades that went through Algiers, all New Orleans parades were restricted to the Saint Charles Avenue Uptown to Canal Street route, a section of the city which escaped significant flooding. Restrictions were placed on the amount of time parades could be on the street and how late they could go.
Louisiana State troopers and National Guard assisted with crowd control for the first time since 1979. Many of the floats had been partially submerged in the floodwaters for weeks. While some krewes repaired and removed all traces of these effects, others incorporated flood lines and other damage into the designs of the floats. Most of the locals who worked on the floats and rode on them were significantly impacted by the storm, and many had lost most or all of their possessions, but their enthusiasm for Carnival was even more intense than usual and celebrated as an affirmation of life. The themes of many costumes and floats had more barbed satire than usual, with commentary on the trials and tribulations of living in the devastated city, with references to MREs, Katrina refrigerators and FEMA trailers, along with much mocking of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and local and national politicians.
It is impossible to estimate how synonymous Mardi Gras and New Orleans have become in popular culture. In 1926, Ferde Grofe wrote an orchestral cycle called the Mississippi Suite, the last movement featuring a musical depiction of Mardi Gras in the French Quarter. Since then the influence of Fat Tuesday on American culture has only increased, as evidenced by the wealth of songs, films, and television shows about the notorious festival.
Alexandria, which is located in the heart of Central Louisiana (CenLa), enjoys a blend of Mardi Gras traditions in keeping with the area's reputation as the "cultural crossroads" of the state. In addition to Mardi Gras balls, parties, and other functions, it hosts several parades, including the Alexandria Mardi Gras Association (AMGA) Krewe Parade, traditionally on the Sunday before Mardi Gras, a Children's parade, and the "Krewe of Provine" Parade, usually held on Mardi Gras Day. In 2008, the "College Cheerleaders and Classic Cars" parade made its debut with warm reception. The area's parades are known for their mix of traditional Mardi Gras fun and revelry with a family-friendly environment. They attract people from as far away as Texas and Mississippi.
Baton Rouge hosts eight parades, including the Spanish Town Parade, Krewe of Southdowns, Krewe of Mutts (dog parade), Krewe Mystique, and Parades such as the Krewe of Orion, Krewe of Artemis, Krewe of Jupiter, and Krewe of Poseidon(new for 2010) which offer more of a traditional New Orleans-style parade. All parades take place downtown, with the exception of the annual Southdowns parade, which runs through the Southdowns subdivision just south of Downtown.
Houma hosts a significant Mardi Gras celebration of ten parades, two of which roll on Mardi Gras day, and the others on the two weekends preceding the big day. King Houmas rules on Fat Tuesday itself. Law enforcement officials estimated that in 2008, more than 150,000 people lined the route of his parade. Mardi Gras has been celebrated annually in Houma since 1947. "Krewe of Hercules", "Krewe of Aquarius", "Krewe of Hyacinthians", "Krewe of Titans", "Krewe of Aphrodite", "Krewe of Mardi Gras", "Krewe of Terreanians", "Krewe of Cleopatra", "Krewe of Houmas", and the "Krewe of Kajuns" make up the ten parades. Houma is about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans.
Lafayette is home to the state's second largest Mardi Gras celebration, which includes eight parades of floats and bands during the Carnival season. The first parade, ten days before Mardi Gras, is the celebrity-led "Krewe of Carnivale en Rio Parada", featuring over 600 riders. Parade royalty on Fat Tuesday includes King Gabriel and Queen Evangeline, named for the hero and heroine of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem; and King Toussaint L'Ouverture and Queen Suzanne Simonet, named for the great Haitian historical leaders. Mardi Gras parades have been an annual tradition in Lafayette since 1934. Recent attendance on Mardi Gras day has been estimated as high as 250,000 by police spokespersons. The first formal Mardi Gras ball and parade in Lafayette dates back to 1869.
In 1897, King Attakapas, the first Lafayette Mardi Gras king was crowned. He rode into town on a Southern Pacific train decorated to look like a royal throne and led the parade. After 1897, formal Mardi Gras parades and balls seemed to come and go until 1934 when the Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras association was formed by representatives from civic and service organizations to ensure that Lafayette would always have a Mardi Gras celebration.
Lake Charles hosts a family-friendly Mardi Gras celebration with nine parades. With over 50 krewes, it is second only to New Orleans in the number of krewes in Louisiana. The Lake Charles Mardi Gras celebration is unique in that it is the only place in Louisiana where the public is invited to see the costumes of the all the krewes in one place, at the Lake Charles Civic Center. Mardi Gras began in Lake Charles as early as 1882 when King Momus landed on the lakefront to begin the celebration. With the onset of the World Wars, Mardi Gras in Lake Charles was not celebrated as much, but was revived in the latter part of the century. This celebration begins in Lake Charles on January 6 each year. The last parade is the Krewe of Krewes Parade in downtown Lake Charles. Mardi Gras in Lake Charles regularly draws 150,000 people. In addition, Mardi Gras can be enjoyed in Lake Charles year round at the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu, which features elaborate costumes and an interactive float. This museum houses the world's largest collection of Mardi Gras costumes.
New Roads another Mardi Gras celebration outside New Orleans. The family-friendly celebration has been an annual event since 1922 and includes two parades on Fat Tuesday: the Community Center Carnival parade, one of the nation's oldest African-American sponsored events, which rolls in the morning; and the New Roads Lions Carnival parade, the first-known Mardi Gras parade to be staged as a charitable fundraiser, which rolls in the afternoon.
Each parade consists of as many as 35 floats built fresh each year, and 10 marching bands and drill units. Unlike the exclusivity of krewe parades in New Orleans and other cities, New Roads' parades are open to public participation, with local schools, churches, organizations, businesses and families building, entering and riding the floats. New Roads' proximity to theBaton Rouge metropolitan area results in an unusually large number of visitors to the New Roads parades, the town's normal size considering. Law enforcement officials have estimated New Roads parade attendance as high as 100,000 in years marked by favorable weather.
Shreveport, located in the Northwestern corner of the state, has numerous krewes, including several that do not parade. Some of them include Atlas, Sobek, Harambee, Centaur, Gemini, Highland, and Asclepius. Thousands of people come to Shreveport to see the parades each year. History has it that Shreveport was said to had Mardi Gras parades beginning after the Civil War. However, the Great Depression ended the celebration for years. In 1989 the parade tradition was renewed by the Krewe of Gemini parade. With their New Orleans style floats, Gemini has grown to the biggest krewe in Shreveport, peaking at over 300 members a couple of years ago.
Courir de Mardi Gras
In parts of Cajun country, such as Eunice, Basile, Church Point and Mamou, the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras (French for the "Mardi Gras Run") is still held. Le Capitaine leads masked men on horseback to gather ingredients for making the communal meal (usually a gumbo). Participants gather in costume and move from home to home requesting ingredients for the night's meal. This rural Mardi Gras draws on traditions that are centuries old. Revelers sing "La Chanson de Mardi Gras", a song echoing medieval melodies.
People escape from ordinary life partly through the alcohol many consume in their festive quest, but more so through the roles they portray in costume. As they act out their parts in a wild, gaudy pageant, they are escaping from routine existence, freed from the restraints that confine them every other day of the year.
 The capitaine maintains control over the Mardi Gras. He issues instructions to the riders as they assemble early in the morning and then leads them on their run. When they arrive at a farm house, he obtains permission to enter private property, after which the riders may charge toward the house, where they sing, dance, and beg until the owner offers them an ingredient for a gumbo. Often, the owner will throw a live chicken into the air that the maskers will chase, like football players trying to recover a fumble. By mid to late afternoon, the courir returns to town and parades down the main street on the way to the location where the evening gumbo will be prepared.
Other Louisiana cities
Other Louisiana cities holding Mardi Gras parades include Bogalusa, Chalmette, Columbia, Covington, Gretna, Kaplan, La Place, Mandeville, Minden, Monroe, Natchitoches, Slidell, Springhill, and Thibodaux.
Because of violent activities of the American terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan, Louisiana has a state law prohibiting the wearing of hoods and masks in public. Mardi Gras is one of the occasions when exceptions are allowed, as are Halloween celebrations and religious observance.