History of Mardi Gras Parades

Beads, costumes, and King Cakes are all Mardi Gras staples, however, Carnival season just wouldn’t be the same without elegant, iconic floats rolling through the streets.

That being said, have you ever wondered how parades got started, what they represent, and when and why they are held? Contrary to popular belief, the first Mardi Gras parade in the United States didn’t take place in New Orleans. It was held in Mobile, Alabama in the early 1700s, when the area was still under French rule. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, about 60 parades rolled through the streets of New Orleans during the two weeks prior to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Parades are organized by a membership of like-minded people referred to as a Krewe. A person must be invited to join a Krewe, with the acceptance of their application being placed before a membership review board.

Although each parade is unique to the particular traditions of each Krewe, they all share a few common practices. First, every parade elects a King or Queen. These individuals are picked from the respective Krewe membership. In recent years, as parades have gotten larger, various celebrities and musicians have received the honor of being the parade’s Grand Marshall.

Of course, each parade must have floats. Float design and decoration takes thousands of hours of preparation and work; preparations actually begin a few weeks after Mardi Gras for the next season. Floats are designed around the Krewe’s particular theme for the year and often satire current topics and cultural events. For example, in 2006 many floats reflected the feelings of New Orleans locals that the government’s relief efforts in response to Hurricane Katrina were too slow to arrive.

Krewe members get the honor of riding the floats, and they will toss beads, doubloons and trinkets to the crowd over the course of the route. The trinkets usually bear the Krewe’s emblem along with the theme and date.

The final ingredient in a parade in the Crescent City is music. The responsibility of providing a musical soundtrack for the fun falls on local high-school marching bands and jazz bands from the area. In addition to the bands, there are usually several local dance schools performing routines while marching. Troupes show off flag drills, clap sequences, and dance numbers while wearing colorful costumes, making parade watching in New Orleans an entertaining and unforgettable activity.