New Roads, Lake Charles & Alexandria, Louisiana
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the mother of all religious celebrations (religious in the theoretical sense). Better known as Carnival, which refers to the entire week of celebrations, Mardi Gras began in ancient times as a prepatory feast for the Lenten season. But in the modern era, especially in the United States and particularly in New Orleans, Mardi Gras has morphed into a very unreligious bacchanalia of epic proportions. However, beyond the well known, massively marketed events, Mardi Gras has managed to retain a simpler and more sedate tone in smaller cities and towns. This is especially true in Louisiana’s Cajun country, where Mardi Gras embraces a more traditional and even (gasp!) religious significance.
Lent, the season leading up to Holy Week and Easter, is traditionally a period of fasting, prayer, self-denial and introspection. It lasts forty days, exclusive of Sundays, in honor of the period Jesus wandered in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. In ancient times, in preparation of this event, which begins on Ash Wednesday, a feast would be held the night before, on Fat Tuesday, to celebrate the coming season.
Mardi Gras, which eventually became the grand finale of the festival known as Carnival, became a popular annual tradition in Europe, a tradition that grew ever larger and more elaborate, especially in the more strongly Catholic areas of Southern Europe. This tradition made its way to the New World in the 17th century, especially in the French colonial areas.
No where was this more true than in the Louisiana Territory. This vast area in what is now the Central United States embraced Carnival and Mardi Gras with a passion, especially in the great port city of New Orleans. However, while New Orleans and other large cities on the French coast celebrated Mardi Gras in ever grander style, the event was treated with a greater reverence and greater sense of tradition in other areas of Louisiana.
Today the state of Louisiana is Mardi Gras central, with celebrations of all sorts and size. Most of those in the big cities in the Southeast of the state are immense, generally more unrestrained affairs. However, those in the west and center of the state run towards the more traditional and family friendly. Of the latter, there are a few standouts, including the Mardi Gras celebrations of Alexandria, Lake Charles and New Roads.
The Mardi Gras of New Roads claims to be the second oldest such celebration in the state after New Orleans. Dating back to the 18th century, it has been running every year since 1922. It features two annual parades, including the oldest African-American sponsored Mardi Gras parade in the United States, and attracts in excess of 75,000 visitors annually. Web: www.newroads.net (official website of the Town of New Roads).
The Mardi Gras of Lake Charles is one of the largest in the state. Dating back to 1882, it also has one of the longest runs every year. There are a total of nine parades, with the final Krewe of Krewes Parade held on the final Tuesday. Thanks to the city’s Imperial Calcasieu Mardi Gras Museum, the history, floats and costumes of the big celebration can be enjoyed year round. Web: www.swlamardigras.com (official website).
The Mardi Gras of Alexandria is considered one of the most traditional and culturally diverse, with a heavy emphasis on family events. In a twist on the usual order of things, the main parade, the Alexandria Mardi Gras Association Krewe Parade, is held the Sunday before Mardi Gras; while the Children’s Parade is held on Mardi Gras itself. Web: www.alexmardigras.com (official website).
Dozens of other cities in Lousiana have Mardi Gras celebrations, mostly of the less reverent sort. The best known of these, hands down, is Mardi Gras of New Orleans. Other major events are the Mardi Gras of Baton Rouge, the Mardi Gras of Shreveport and the Mardi Gras of Lafayette.