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What is Mardi Gras and how to celebrate it, says a local

What is Mardi Gras and how to celebrate it, says a local

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is carnival Tomorrow February 21st So it’s time to get in the holiday spirit. Whether you live in New Orleans or New York, it’s time to unpack the clothes, pearls and delicious food.

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If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to party Mardi Gras like a New Orleans local, then you’re in luck because we know what it’s really like to party in Louisiana. Reviewed newsletter editor and strategist Ashley Dean has lived in New Orleans, Louisiana, for a little over three years, making this year’s Mardi Gras her fourth as a local. Dean shares with us some of her tips and tricks for celebrating Mardi Gras like it’s New Orleans, from classic traditions to decorative ideas around the home.

►More: 5 royal cakes that you can order online for carnival

What is carnival?

Mardi Gras is the French translation for “Fat Tuesday”, also known as Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras always comes before Ash Wednesday, which for Christians marks Lent. In preparation for this, Shrove Tuesday is full of indulgence and celebration. Fat Tuesday has been an official holiday in Louisiana since 1875.

Mardi Gras celebrations date back to medieval Europe. But in New Orleans, Mardi Gras celebrations have outgrown Catholicism. It’s also woven into “French celebrations, African music and the tradition of masquerades,” Karen Leathem, museum historian at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, tells USA TODAY. Everything from eye masks to those colorful beads to the Krus of New Orleans holding parades has this cultural significance.

The story behind Mardi Gras is fascinating, but it doesn’t come without some serious historical context. “Carnival history is long, fascinating and sometimes ugly. Like so much of our past, it’s tied to racism,” says Dean. “When I moved here, I read James Gill’s Lords of Misrule, which picks it all up. It really opened my eyes.”

When is carnival?

Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” lands on Tuesday February 21st this year. Its date is not fixed and falls somewhere between February 3rd and March 9th. This is because it is the day before Ash Wednesday and Lent begins, which is also different each year.

How to celebrate Mardi Gras like a local

Go to a parade

When it comes to celebrating Mardi Gras, Dean says it’s all about going to the parades. There are many parades that parade through New Orleans on Mardi Gras, led by certain krewes, organizations that hold parades or other Mardi Gras celebrations and are particularly associated with Mardi Gras in New Orleans. You can read more details about which parades are taking place and when at

Even if you’re not in New Orleans for the holiday, there might be a local parade or celebration you can attend, particularly in cities with old Mardi Gras traditions like Mobile, Alabama and St. Louis, Missouri.

Decorate your home

Whether you’re a New Orleans resident or not, decorating the outside and inside of your home is a fun way to celebrate the occasion.

“I use old beads to decorate the porch—using beads as porch decorations is very common,” says Dean. “Other people decorate their houses much like you do for Christmas, except it’s all purple, green, and gold.”

If you don’t have beads (or they’re sold out in your area), you can always use green, gold, and purple garlands, flags, balloons, banners, flowers, or similar decor. Amazon sells a variety of table runners, garlands, and pom poms to meet your Mardi Gras decorating needs.

$8 from Amazon $12 from Amazon $15 from Amazon

Bake or order a king cake

King Cake is a delicious dessert associated with the Mardi Gras holiday. A mix of coffee cake and cinnamon rolls, the cake is traditionally topped with icing and green, gold, and purple sugar to represent the famous Mardi Gras colors. This cake is a staple during the carnival season. “I try to always have some king cake with me,” says Dean.

As for the origin of eating king cake during Mardi Gras, the dessert has an interesting biblical connection. Also known as the Epiphany cake, the cake’s name comes from the biblical story of three kings, or magi, bringing gifts to baby Jesus. In each king’s cake there is a small plastic baby that represents the baby Jesus. Whoever gets the piece with the baby is said to be lucky and prosperous – and the order to bring the next cake or throw a party.

There are many recipes online that you can try and bake your own king cake at home. If you’d rather order an authentic king cake for the celebration, Goldbelly will deliver local New Orleans king cakes to your door. You can get two king cakes from Gambino’s Bakery for $83 (and you get free shipping, too). If you prefer donuts to cake, you can get a jumbo donut king cake from Angel Food Cake. This donut weighs a pound and is large enough to serve four people.

$83 from Goldbelly $60 from Goldbelly

Dress up for the occasion

“One of the first things I was told about Mardi Gras as a local was that everyone in New Orleans has a costume closet. That’s definitely overkill, but the point is that costumes are a big part of it, whether you’re a kru or not,” says Dean.

Dean himself is in a krewe—the Red Bean krewe, to be exact—where they make bean-decorated suits for the parade. “Think of an elaborately beaded costume, but with beans,” says Dean.

The background of the bean suits comes from culturally significant traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians. “There is so much to say [the Mardi Gras Indians], but the short story is that it’s a New Orleans black tradition rooted in honoring the Native Americans who helped people escape slavery. Your suits are stunning,” says Dean.

As for what to wear in or out of New Orleans, Dean suggests anything that’s “bold and fun.” Purple, green, and gold are the official colors of Mardi Gras, so you can dress up in a fun ensemble that includes those colors. Colorful beads are one way to jazz up your look.

Another style option is the classic eye mask, which comes from the European masquerade tradition. This is a fun (and stylish) choice to add to your ensemble.

$33 from Amazon $23 from Amazon

Watch Mardi Gras documentaries

If you’re intrigued by the history and cultural significance behind Mardi Gras, Dean recommends watching a documentary or two on Mardi Gras. She recommends Buckjumping and All On A Mardi Gras Day, which can be streamed on Amazon Prime and Vimeo, respectively.

To really get into the Mardi Gras spirit, you can check out’s live parade cam to catch all the action on New Orleans’ most famous streets.

Stream Amazon Prime

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