You know how people say that New Year's Eve is for amateurs? Mardi Gras is for professionals. Not that you need any special expertise to partake in the season (and yes, it's a seaso: Carnival season!), but rather than the one-night-and-it's-over sprint of New Year's Eve, Mardi Gras lasts for many weeks. That's why one of my favorite New Orleans t-shirt companies has a Christmas shirt that says "Happy Almost Mardi Gras." Six weeks of Carnival (or more!) beats twelve days of Christmas, hands down. It officially starts, in fact, on the last day of Christmas: January 6, or Epiphany, the day that, in many Christian traditions, the three wise men visited the baby Jesus to bring him dope gifts. It also means, starting now, you can have king cake for breakfast every dang day if you want.
In New Orleans, today is Three Kings Day or Twelfth Night, and it's kicked off by the first parades of the season. Parades and balls are thrown by krewes, which are New Orleans-specific social clubs that band together just for that purpose. Most krewes have a court—they elect a king and queen who ride on the floats in the parade, and are honored at a ball. They also collect dues from their members and throw fundraising events so they can afford to throw totally boss parties and huge parades. There are many, many krewes, ranging from old and storied (Krewe of Rex, Krewe of Zulu) to niche and new (Krewe of Chewbacchus, a group of self-proclaimed "super nerds" founded in 2010). Some krewes have waiting lists years long for the opportunity to join, others have a more open enrollment process. Some are more informal than that: A New Orleans friend of mine reported on a Mardi Gras one year where the Krewe of Robyn and the Krewe of Mariah merged mid-parade. One of my favorites is the all-female Krewe of Muses, which honored Solange Knowles last year by having her ride in one of their shoe-shaped floats. Are you not delighted?
Every Krewe also has parade throws specific to that group—the little goodies that the people riding on the floats fling out to the crowd, along with the time-honored Mardi Gras beads. Popular throws include plastic cups and stuffed animals, though there are also doubloons and other assorted tchotkes. If you're really lucky, you can nab a hand-painted coconut at Zulu or a spangled toilet brush at Nyx. If you end up going to a parade, beware bead injuries. Those are really real.
Many krewes roll during the week of Mardi Gras itself—this year it's on February 28—but because Mardi Gras is, like I said, a whole season, there are parades throughout. To kick off things, the Krewe of Joan of Arc has their parade in New Orleans French Quarter, and attendees dress in gold, like the Joan of Arc statue in the city.
But even if you're far, far from New Orleans, you can still celebrate in time-honored fashion with king cake. A king cake is a large, icing-covered, ring-shaped treat that tastes like something between a cinnamon roll and a coffee cake. Hidden inside its depths is usually a tiny plastic baby. If you get the baby in your slice, it means you have to throw next year's Mardi Gras party. If you aren't sharing your king cake with anyone at a party, it means you get a small, creepy toy for yourself.
If you're too lazy to make one (and I don't really blame you) you can order one direct from New Orleans. They come in all kinds of fillings and flavors, from lemon to strawberry to cream cheese, but the original is probably the best starting off point. Sucre has fancy, delicious options, but my personal favorite is Joe Gambino's. See, January isn't so bad, right? It's Mardi Gras!