What You Need to Know About Carnival to Kick Off Mardi Gras Season

The celebration culminates on Mardi Gras.

Christmas may have just ended, with the smells of cut pine and cinnamon still lingering in the air, but this time of year the attention of south Louisiana abruptly shifts. Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, celebrated on January 6, signifies the official end of the Yuletide season. Many people don't know that the 12 Days of Christmas actually start on Christmas Day, and the twelfth (and last) day of Christmas marks the day the wise men arrived to pay homage to the Christ child.

It also heralds the start of the Carnival season, the pre-Lenten celebration that culminates on Mardi Gras (which is French for Fat Tuesday).

Yes, that's right. Carnival, with its king cakes, crawfish boils, and brass bands, is a season, the length of which is determined by the moveable feast of Easter. Mardi Gras, the last hurrah before lent begins, is one day, specifically, the one before Ash Wednesday. (This year, Fat Tuesday falls on March 1.)

Mardi Gras decorations on a balcony
Daniel Grill/Getty Images

While the rest of the world is packing away the red and green of Christmas, New Orleans is donning the purple, green, and gold of Carnival and preparing for the weeks-long revelry that precedes the weeks-long abstinence of Lent.

The Big Easy isn't the only place in the United States where this happens. Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, and towns all over south Louisiana put their own unique spin on Carnival. Those places can rightfully boast about their Carnival cred, but, New Orleans far and away owns top billing.

The city's celebration, fine-tuned over three centuries, is steeped in traditions, many of which outsiders—and even many natives—never see. Take, for instance, the formal ball that for 150 years has opened every Carnival season, a soirée hosted by the Twelfth Night Revelers and their leader, the Lord of Misrule.

Not that you must understand all the nuances of Carnival to enjoy it. In a nutshell: Carnival is a nonstop indulgence in food and drink, indulgence in fanciful parades and costumes, and, above all, indulgence in tradition. It's the go-ahead-eat-more-pralines, get-it-all-out-of-your-system period before austere days ahead, but also the reward for making it through another year.

Many of the celebrations were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, and plans for 2022 are still up in the air. But Carnival, with its rallying cry, "laissez les bon temps rouler (let the good times roll)," has never just boiled down to an events calendar. It's a spirit. Gumbos will still simmer. Etouffee will still braise on the stove. Friends will see friends.

And the joie de vivre doesn't have to be confined to the aforementioned regions of the country. Anyone can join in and capture a flavor of Louisiana from wherever you are. So, get ready to turn up the music, shake the cocktail and stir the roux—for however long as it takes.

It's Carnival time. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

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