The Washington Post has an in-depth roundup of five common myths about mardi gras. Here is the abbreviated list:
Mardi Gras is all about beads, booze and breasts. [F]or locals, and visitors who look below the surface and venture deeper into the real New Orleans, the Carnival experience is entirely different — and far removed from the stereotypes that have shaped outsiders’ perception of this holiday…. [T]the real stars of the parades are the marching bands.
Mardi Gras is just one day. Yes, Fat Tuesday commemorates a day of excess before the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. But Mardi Gras is a marathon, not a sprint. It starts with Twelfth Night (Jan. 6, also known as Epiphany, a Christian holiday commemorating the wise men’s visit to newborn Jesus) and continues for several weeks, officially ending at midnight Ash Wednesday. For New Orleanians, there are parties, masquerades, parades and other festivities from Jan. 6 onward, and there are always new rituals being born.
In the United States, Mardi Gras happens only in New Orleans. The first Mardi Gras celebration on this continent was actually in Mobile, Ala., in 1703, and that city still hosts a season of parades and balls.
Mardi Gras is a French tradition. While French Catholic settlers did export the holiday to New Orleans after they brought it to Mobile, Mardi Gras as it is celebrated in the Crescent City is very much rooted in a distinct local culture that melds its African, Native American and European heritage.
Mardi Gras is [for whites only]. While some New Orleans institutions are stained with a history of discrimination, Mardi Gras as we celebrate it today has also been shaped by resistance to racism. The legacy of New Orleans includes the largest slave uprising in U.S. history, which took place in 1811 just outside New Orleans, and the civil disobedience of Homer Plessy, who challenged “separate but equal” laws in 1892…. Much of New Orleans’s distinct music, food and even architecture descends from the culture shaped by these free Africans.