Fat Tuesday 2011: Top cities that celebrate Mardi Gras

Partying has begun today in major cities to mark Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, a last gastronomical hurrah before the Christian fasts that start on Ash Wednesday and continue during the season of Lent.

The festivities that precede Fat Tuesday are known as Carnival in Catholic European nations, Latin America, and Canada. They are known as Shrovetide in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and Mardi Gras in the US and Australia.

The Mardi Gras season starts on twelfth night (January 5) and ends on Fat Tuesday, but the festivities and parade season usually last for only the few days nearest Fat Tuesday. Fat Tuesday 2011 falls on March 8, but the day falls on a different date every year depending on when Easter falls. This year Fat Tuesday is being celebrated later than any other Fat Tuesday in over 150 years.

The festivities include rich, fatty foods, masks and elaborate costumes, balls, and large scale parades at which participants throw small gifts. In the early days of the Mardi Gras parades, participants would throw candy or nuts. The "throws" have since evolved to include whistles, trinkets, cups, fake money (called doubloons), beaded necklaces, oranges, and even coconuts.

New York

New Orleans

Revelers yell for beads to be thrown on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Monday. Mardi Gras season ends with an all-day celebration on Fat Tuesday, March 8. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The biggest Mardi Gras city in America has built a brand and economy around the festival and is expecting a record-breaking 3 million-plus people this year.

The New Orleans Mardi Gras festivities can be broken down into three attractions. There are the private balls held by membership organizations called Krewes. There are the public and raucous parades that wind through the French Quarter. And there are the notorious and often times debaucherous parties in the bars and on the streets of the French Quarter - but most New Orleanians would say that is a year-round party and not truly part of Mardi Gras.

The Krewe balls are so elite that even New Orleans governors have been refused entry. Inside, aside from dancing, invited guests may be shown a skit and are likely to bear witness to new débutantes coming out to high society.

Krewes also make elaborate and expensive floats that become the focus of the millions of people lining the parade route. One float can cost over $1 million to design and build.

Fat Tuesday features the most floats and parades of any other day of the Mardi Gras festival with 22 floats and seven parades this year.

The festival is so vital to New Orleans that they have only been cancelled 13 times - all of which were due to war. And no, they didn't cancel Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.

While New Orleans is the most notorious city to celebrate Mardi Gras in America, the next city's party dwarfs the Big Easy's two months of parades.

Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome seen on Lundi Gras during the Carnival festival, Monday. (Imago Photo Arena/Newscom)

Rio de Janeiro, the self-described capital of Carnival, is the place everyone thinks about when they think Carnival. And rightly so - the city's version of Carnival has been touted as the world's best party. Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Rio's festival has both balls and parades. But the balls in Rio are open to the public, with tickets going for $70 to $150.

While admittance to balls doesn't always require a costume, those who don them do it with finesse and potential guests are reminded that Rio's "costume standards are very high."

Fat Tuesday's ball is the highlight of all the balls, and is broadcast throughout the country on national television. Unlike many other Fat Tuesday balls around the world, Rio's Fat Tuesday ball is a gay costume ball. Attendees and television viewers expect to see grand entrances and outlandish costumes.

Rio's parades are not orchestrated by Krewes, but rather the 70 samba schools in Rio. Using the uniquely Brazilian invention of a Sambadrome - a long stadium build to exhibit samba school dancers - Rio entertains two million people every day during the four days of Carnival. On Fat Tuesday the final samba schools take the stage in the Sambadrome. Each school will have approximately 1,500 dancers.

Binche, Belgium

Gilles de Binche wear their traditional costumes and masks during their carnival parade in the streets of Binche on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009. (Wiktor Dabkowski/UPPA/Photoshot/Newscom/File)

One Carnival venue on the world stage that may be lesser known has nonetheless earned the most impressive international recognition for its Carnival tradition. The Carnival of Binche in the small town of Binche, Belgium, was proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003.

At dawn on Fat Tuesday, boys and men from 3 to 60 years old take to the streets of Binche by the thousands. All the participants are dressed and masked as "Gilles" which have green goggle eyes, wax masks, and wooden shoes. The costumes are 16th century designs and some pieces are thought to be 150 years old themselves. The Gilles first begin warding off evil spirits by shaking sticks in the main square.

They then adorn themselves in expensive ostridge feather headdresses and after some carefully choreographed dancing, they take up arms in the form of oranges. Marching through town, they then start throwing the oranges at the crowd. While some are gently tossed, plenty more leave bruises or cause damage to property.

The tradition is of good intent, of course. The oranges are gifts symbolic of the coming warmer months.

Though you may not be in any of these cities, wherever you are this Fat Tuesday, now you know you can always toss an orange at somebody and shout "Laissez les bons temps rouler!"