Next Tuesday is the last day before the start of the Christian Lenten season. The day is traditionally celebrated in many parts of the world as Carnival, or “Mardi Gras” - French for "Fat Tuesday." The most famous of the Mardi Gras celebrations here in the United States is in the southern city of New Orleans, Louisiana, where raucous parties sometimes obscure the rich cultural traditions that underpin the celebration.
There is always music and fun in the old French Quarter of New Orleans and Mardi Gras provides the biggest party of all.
Mardi Gras is also a big business for New Orleans, bringing in over a billion dollars a year and bolstering tourism in general.
But even residents whose job it is to attract tourists, want the world to understand that this is not just a rowdy party, but an important part of the cultural life of the city.
Laura Claverie, of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, says Mardi Gras is a great family event. "Mardi Gras is a fabulous family experience. First of all, the parades attract kids. What child does not like a parade? And with 24 to 30 parades in two weeks, kids love to visit these."
She says the organizers of Mardi Gras events carry on family and community traditions that date back more than 100 years. “There is just a real sense of doing it the way it has always been done, preserving what is special and giving the city a wonderful time," said Laura.
Saint Charles Avenue in the picturesque Garden District is the principal Mardi Gras parade route. The king of Mardi Gras parades, called the Rex parade, stops briefly each year at one particular house on this street.
It is the home of attorney Bill Grace.
Bill Grace said, “In 1907, my great-great grandfather was Rex, Robert Henry Dauman, and he owned this house and so the Rex parade stopped here in 1907 to give him a toast, and every year since then the Rex parade has stopped here at 2525 Saint Charles Avenue."
The Rex, or King, Parade is one of dozens put together by volunteer social groups who also sponsor lavish balls. Bill Grace notes that these groups do it all on their own. "One of the things that is very interesting, I think, and sets the New Orleans carnival apart from other Mardi Gras' is that it is all privately funded. There are no corporate dollars here, there are no public dollars," he said.
The work to design and create the elaborate floats used in Mardi Gras parades starts months before the event. The floats for the Rex parade are kept out of public view in a giant warehouse until Mardi Gras day.
Local pediatrician and Mardi Gras enthusiast Doctor Stephen Hales notes that everything is made right here in New Orleans. "One of the things that pleases us when we look at the traditions of Mardi Gras is that the building of these floats has not changed a lot in terms of the methodology and the materials in the last 100 years. There is not plastic. You will not find anything other than really old techniques of making figures out of paper mache. These flowers are made out of paper and wire and glue and paint. As the floats move down the street they shake and shimmy and it is an absolutely beautiful scene," said Dr. Hales.
The theme for this year's Rex parade is "Tales from Old Cathay," an exploration of ancient Chinese culture.
Dr. Hales says children, in particular, are fascinated by these figures and the stories behind them. "This dragon figure, the title of the float is 'Kubla Khan,' who was the grandson of Genghis Khan and who established what was then far and away the largest and grandest medieval empire, with its headquarters near Beijing," said the doctor.
The Rex organization has used this year's theme as a learning opportunity for school children, providing information about each float and the stories of old China to schools, deepening further the traditional values and rich experience of Mardi Gras.