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When most of us think of Mardi Gras we picture rowdy, drunken tourists crowding the narrow streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. But there's so much more to it than that! Ask any New Orleans native. 

Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday") comes from the catholic traditions of the earliest French settlers in Louisiana. Strictly speaking, Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of the solemn season of Lent. Catholics observe lent by fasting one day each week, making a confession, and special prayers in preparation for Easter. In keeping with the penitential season, meals during Lent are simpler and use less fat and meat products than normal; in some parts of the world, Lenten meals are strictly vegetarian. So the tradition arose of using up all of the butter, milk, meat, and eggs in the house before Lent began, by making a rich meal (the last rich meal they will have until Easter) the night before--Fat Tuesday.

In modern times Mardi Gras in New Orleans is celebrated over several weeks, starting on Twelfth Night, January 6th, and culminating on Fat Tuesday. The date of Mardi Gras varies from year to year along with the date of Easter. So the carnival season can be as short as 3 weeks or as long as 8 weeks. The season is marked by parades and balls put on by "Krewes" or social clubs. The balls are usually formal affairs and attendance is by invitation only; debutantes are presented at Mardi Gras balls. The parades, however, are a spectacle for everyone. New Orleans natives refer to them as the Greatest Free Show on Earth.

Each Krewe sponsors its own parade, with music, floats, often celebrity guests, and trinkets such as doubloons and bead necklaces thrown to the crowds. Participants dress in themed costumes, and each Krewe has a King and a Queen, whose identities are kept secret until the parade begins. And the Krewes have colorful names, many of which are drawn from Greek mythology. Bacchus. Rex. Zeus. Endymion. Zulu. And many more.

Apart from the scheduled events, everyone wears fancy costumes or at least a mask, and dresses in the Mardi Gras colors of purple (symbolizes justice), green (symbolizes faith), and gold (symbolizes power). Festive meals include King Cake, honoring the Three Kings who visited the infant Jesus on Twelfth Night (the feast of the Epiphany). A King Cake is a braided ring or oval of rich, buttery Danish pastry dough, decorated in the Mardi Gras colors. Before it is baked, a small--usually plastic--figure of a baby is inserted into the dough and baked in. When the cake is served, the person who receives the slice containing the figure may receive a small prize. The winner also has the privilege and responsibility of hosting the next party.

But you don't have to live in New Orleans or be Catholic to join in the Mardi Gras fun! You can plan your own carnival party. Just decorate your home in the traditional colors, plan a festive meal, play jazz music, and wear one of our Mardi Gras costumes of masks. Mak (or order) a King Cake. Lay in a supply of beaded necklaces. And laissez les bons temps rouler! (Let the good times roll!)