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.

Masked Revelle participate in the annual Venice Carnival in Venice, Italy, March 7.

New Orleans

Patrick Semansky/AP
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.

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.

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