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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What is Mardi Gras?

It's okay, you can admit it. You've always heard of Mardi Gras. You know it happens in New Orleans. You know it involves a lot of beads, some crazy costumes, and a parade. You may even know that you see colorful cakes at the bakery called king cakes.

But you may not know what is.

You certainly aren't alone! In celebration of Mardi Gras today, we'd like to give you the run-down of what it actually all means. And we'll give you some beads for reading, too!

The story behind Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday," which is what today celebrates. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of fasting for Lent in Christianity. And what do you want to do before you fast? You pig out! On Fat Tuesday, it's tradition to eat the rich, fatty foods that many deny themselves over the Lenton period. Mardi Gras refers to the tradition of celebrating it! Since Ash Wednesday and the period of Lent are considered serious affairs, Mardi Gras takes the chance to turn everything topsy-turvy beforehand. Social norms are shattered, costumes and masks hide identities, and everyone joins the carnival.

The parade
The New Orleans Mardi Gras parades are organized by krewes (groups of people, usually affiliated with a specific organization or cause). These krewes put together floats and toss goodies to the crowd, such as beads, plastic cups, doubloons, and the like. Fun fact: since Mardi Gras is considered a traditional religious holiday, the event is not sponsored by businesses. The only exception was in 2006, after Hurricane Katrina caused such widespread destruction and debt, that the city accepted sponsorship.

The king cake
These tasty cakes are decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold. Each oblong, braided cake has a small bean or plastic baby placed somewhere inside it. Whoever has the slice with the baby in it has to buy next year's cake or throw next year's king cake party!

Why New Orleans?
That's a good question. Louisiana was settled by the French, and in the late 17th century, the Le Moyne brothers were sent to defend the territory. They arrived just before the holiday, so they celebrated it near where New Orleans is today (and named the spot in its honor). One of the brothers went on to found the capitol of French Louisiana (Mobile, Alabama today). As the territory grew, so did its festivities. By the time the capitol was moved to New Orleans, Mardi Gras festivities had been widely accepted by all its colonists, whether they were originally French or not!

We hope this answered some questions for you. Mardi Gras can be a very fun festival, even for those who don't observe the traditional holidays it celebrates! And, as promised, your beads:

Photo: Mark Gstohl on Flickr
What do you do to celebrate Mardi Gras?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Good Work in New Orleans, February 2012

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!

In honor of this celebration of caring and love, we'd like to update you with some interesting projects that are taking action in our beloved New Orleans. Check out these three opportunities in which an organization, a company, and the government are making the world better:

-UNITY of Greater New Orleans is doing some wonderful work to reduce the number of those without homes in the city. The bad news: New Orleans was placed with the second-highest homeless rate in the country. The good news: UNITY is working to change that - and they're getting attention for it too. For more information, visit UNITY's website or read this article about the homeless rate.

-LaQuinta Inns & Suites is making a great donation in a very fun way! They're donating 850 brand-new mattresses to various organizations in the city that fight homelessness....after they break the Guiness World Record for the largest human mattress domino drop! If you're going to be in New Orleans on February 27th or 28th, get involved! Check out more information about it through HandsOn New Orleans' website, or email Alexa Strong at alstrong@nola.gov for further details. 

-Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city of New Orleans broke ground on restoring Oliver Bush Park in the Lower 9th Ward. This park was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, but the $2.1 million renovation will more than restore it to its former glory. The renovation includes a baseball field, a basketball pavilion, four tennis courts, a picnic shelter, a playground, lighting, and landscaping. Giving residents something pretty, functional, and fun is an important step towards restoring the beautiful Lower 9th. For more information, read this article or check out the CSED's blog post about the experience.

We're so thrilled to see powerful action in such a deserving city. What other projects are happening in New Orleans that you want to tell the world about? Leave us a comment with more information!