Mardi gras in Mississippi

Cities along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast hold parades, parties, bed races and more to celebrate Fat Tuesday.
By Laura Claverie

As the crowds gather along the curbs on a busy main street, the music starts and colorful floats roll down the streets. Throngs of revelers shout “throw me something” to the float riders in the hopes of catching treasure, such as a plastic cup, a small stuffed animal, a Moon Pie, or a string of beads.

parade

Above: Nearly two dozen parades are held on the Gulf Coast during Mardi Gras season. Biloxi Chamber of Commerce photo

Below: The Mardi Gras Bed Race in Biloxi features hilarious mattress match-ups, music and more. Mo-Joe Foundation photos

bed race

It’s Mardi Gras in small towns along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Each year, more than 450,000 locals and visitors attend nearly two dozen parades along the coast, and all the events boast colorful floats, marching bands and lively dance groups.

“Our Carnival is big enough to experience the fun of Mardi Gras, and in some ways feels like New Orleans, but is not as crowded or raucous,” says Dr. Macgruder Corban, a retired Gulfport physician. “It’s good, safe fun…what Mardi Gras is all about.”

Mardi Gras yesterday and today

Literally translated, Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of the solemn season of Lent. Traditionally, this is the last time Lenten observers have to party until Easter Sunday. Over the years, communities that celebrate Mardi Gras have created their own traditions.

Mardi Gras along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast goes back more than 100 years.

“In the late 1800s, everyone turned out in costume and milled around on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday,” says Murella Powell, a local historian. “There were a few balls as early as the mid-1800s and they were called fancy dress balls.”

The first city-sponsored event was in 1908, when Biloxi city fathers tired of seeing all their townspeople go to New Orleans for its big flashy parades and balls.

Today’s Gulf Coast Carnival is more family-oriented and laid back than the Mardi Gras of New Orleans. You won’t see the Bourbon Street sights, and Gulf Coast residents like it this way. What you will see, however, is definitely worth the trip.

“Mardi Gras is the one event that ties the Gulf Coast together,” says Camille Puckett, a Gulf Coast resident. “Each town thinks it has the best events, and each has its own personality. The towns compete to see which can outdo the other.”

With two dozen parades in the weeks preceding Fat Tuesday, where does a visitor begin, and when is the best time to get the full flavor of the Gulf Coast Carnival experience?

The best time to visit any Mardi Gras, in the small Mississippi towns or New Orleans, is the weekend before Fat Tuesday. Because the date for Mardi Gras changes each year, plan ahead in booking hotel rooms and map out your parade quest in advance. Parades are assigned to ride on certain days each year, so the schedule rarely changes. In every Mardi Gras, tradition reigns.

Here are suggestions to make the most of your Gulf Coast Mardi Gras weekend and find the most fun.

A full slate of activities

Base yourself in Biloxi and arrive on Friday (Feb. 12, 2010) before Fat Tuesday. Settle in to your hotel and prepare for four days of parades, balls, events and sightseeing.

• Saturday, Feb. 13. Beginning at noon, the Biloxi Children’s Walking Parade is a must-see for families and those who love little children. This is a bit of a street party with lots of costumes and children being pulled in wagons by parents. You might prefer to drive 18 miles to Pass Christian, Miss., for the Krewe of Legacy, which begins at 1 p.m. You’ll see a parade full of decorated floats and adult riders, along with horse and buggies with riders throwing trinkets.

  • Sunday, Feb. 14. Once again, you have two parades in different towns from which to select. Beginning at noon, the St. Paul’s Carnival Parade in Pass Christian features about 40 floats and is considered one of the biggest, and slightly rowdiest, celebrations on the Gulf Coast. If this seems a little daunting, drive or walk to D’Iberville (about two miles north of Biloxi) for a smaller, low-keyed family parade at 1:30 p.m. Either way, you’ll have a fun afternoon.

  • Monday, Feb. 15. There are no parades riding on this day, so plan to see some of the sights along the Gulf Coast. There are nine active casinos and some interesting museums, including the Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs (about two miles east of Biloxi) and the George Ohr Museum of Art. Tour several lovely historic homes, including the newly restored Beauvoir, home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Both the Ohr Museum and Beauvoir are in Biloxi. If you love the water, go boating on the Gulf of Mexico or walk the miles of sandy beaches.

    Monday evening hosts the Coronation Ball in Biloxi presented by the Gulf Coast Carnival Organization in the Mississippi Coast Coliseum. This is the biggest and most elaborate Mardi Gras Ball on the Gulf Coast with several thousand revelers in attendance. It’s the site of the crowning of Carnival’s King, Queen and court. Visitors are welcome to view the ball and sit in the balcony (dancing is reserved for members and their guests). Tickets are free, and the sight of the elegant court in full regal costumes is worth it, even from a balcony view.

  • Tuesday, Feb. 16. It’s Fat Tuesday, and beginning at 1 p.m. in Biloxi, the Gulf Coast Carnival Parade features 100 floats and more than 2,000 riders. Find a place along the parade route and arrive at least two hours early. Plan to mill around Biloxi and see the costumes of parade-goers and just enjoy the excitement. This parade lasts a few hours.

    Later that evening drive to Gulfport (the parades are about seven miles apart) for the Krewe of Gemini’s night parade, beginning at 6 p.m., which features 57 floats and marching units.

Throughout this weekend, there are some fun and offbeat events worth attending. On the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, watch the Mardi Gras Bed Race in Biloxi where participants will decorate beds and race down the street in pajamas. The race begins at 11 a.m. and is great for belly laughs. The bed races are part of a number of events organized by the Mo-Joe Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes tourism on the Gulf Coast and is named after an imaginary historical figure who loved frivolity, Maurice Joubert de LaBelle, or Mo-Joe.

Among the other Mo-Joe events in Biloxi will be the landing of Mo-Joe on the Back Bay on Jan. 9, the Mo-Joe Ball at the IP Casino Resort & Spa on Feb. 12 and the Mo-Joe Festival from Feb. 5–14 featuring carnival rides, food, music, games and more.

In nearby Pass Christian on Feb. 13, the Mardi Gras Mambo Cue begins at 4 p.m. in the city’s War Memorial Park. This large barbecue festival boasts lots of local arts, crafts and great food. There’s no admission for this fete. Later that night is the fourth annual Biloxi Blues Festival at 8 p.m. in the Mississippi Coast Coliseum, which always showcases high-energy, world-class talent. Tickets can be purchased online through ticketmaster.com.

Come to the coast prepared

With all parades, it’s important to arrive at least an hour early to find a good viewing location. Bring a picnic basket filled with goodies, bottled water and a bag to hold all the trinkets you catch. Keep your wallet and identification in a fanny-pack. Dress comfortably and casually, whether in a costume or jeans. Good walking shoes are a must. Check the weather just before you leave home, as the Gulf Coast climate is unpredictable. As with any big public celebration, be patient.

“Although the towns are close together and parades are not far apart, traffic can be difficult,” says Nancy Rogers of the Gulf Coast Carnival Association. “Just keep your cool and have fun.”

Laura Claverie is a new contributor from New Orleans.

Jan/Feb 2010 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For additional information, contact the Harrison County Tourism Commission, www.gulfcoast.org, or (888) 467-4853.

To visit Biloxi, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Mississippi through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com


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