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Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some questions frequently asked about Mardi Gras in Mobile and the best answers the Mask could find:

What’s the difference between Carnival and Mardi Gras?
Carnival is a period of frivolity and merrymaking between Twelfth Night (Jan. 6, the much-sung-about twelfth day of Christmas) and Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, when the Christian Lenten period begins. Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, that last day of celebration before Lent.

Why is Mardi Gras always on a different date?
The easy answer is because Easter is always on a different date. The date of Fat Tuesday is dependent upon the date of Ash Wednesday, and Ash Wednesday is always 46 days before Easter. Now, how the date of Easter is determined actually depends on the sun and the moon. Easter falls on the first Sunday on or after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox (first day of spring). Because of all this, the date of Mardi Gras can be as early as February 3 or as late as March 9.

What’s the deal with king cake?
A special pastry to celebrate Twelfth Night, or the arrival of the three kings, goes way back in time. These days, a king cake is more of a brioche than an actual cake. Many variations exist, but cinnamon is always a major flavor. It has long been a tradition to bake a token, such as a coin or even a bean, into the cake. Whoever gets the token is declared the king or queen of the party. Nowadays, of course, a small plastic baby is the token (many believe it represents the Christ child, but that’s not necessarily the case), and most bakeries won’t put the baby in the cake because someone might choke on it. Like Carnival itself, king cakes are only supposed to be available and eaten between Twelfth Night and Fat Tuesday.

How many parades are there in Mobile?
In downtown Mobile, about 33 different groups stage parades, though some are right after the other, over about three weeks. Baldwin County has at least a dozen major parades, and there are several in Mobile County outside of downtown. Plus, there’s a number of neighborhood parades all over, many of them children’s parades. You’re looking at easily 50 chances to catch a parade of some kind around here.

How many Mardi Gras kings and queens are there in Mobile?
In the Mobile area, that is practically an uncountable number. The most visible monarchs are the kings and queens of the Mobile Carnival Association, the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association, and the Prichard Mardi Gras Association. However, most parading societies have one or two monarchs, and many of the non-parading societies also have kings and/or queens.

Why all the secrecy?
Frankly, it’s all part of the fun. The anonymity of French masked balls was extended to these so-called mystic societies. From the beginning, in the early 19th century, these mystics simply took great delight in keeping their business a secret until they paraded out in the streets. And even then, you didn’t know who they were. Today, some of the older groups cling tenaciously to that secrecy, while others, not so much.

Can I join a parading group?
That depends on the group. On the one end, there’s a handful of older groups that you literally have to be born into. On the other end, there are some groups – newer ones – that you can buy your way into. Show up, pay your dues, and that’s it. In between lie most of the groups, where it’s not impossible to get in, but you do need a member to sponsor you.

How can I go to a ball?
A few groups actually sell tickets. Otherwise, you have to receive an invitation from a member of the group that is holding the ball.

What does “costume de rigueur” mean?
If your ball invitation includes those words (which is likely), for the men, in particular, it’s quite specific. According to the folks at Francia’s Formal Affair, it means black tails, white pique (fabric with a waffle texture) shirt, white pique vest, and white pique tie, as well as white cufflinks and studs. For the ladies, it means a floor-length dress. If your ball invitation says “costume de rigueur,” and many of them do, you must follow this to the letter. Wear a purple tie, and they will turn you away at the door.

Can I wear a mask to the ball?
Nope. Not unless you’re a member and part of the tableau.

Does every Mardi Gras group put on a parade?
Not at all. There’s easily more than 20 groups in the Mobile area that do not parade but do hold balls.

Where do they keep all those floats?
Organizations that own their own floats also usually own what they call float barns. Located all over the city and in both Mobile and Baldwin counties, float barns are cavernous warehouses that not only hold the floats but provide enough room for the float builders to work on them.

Who pays for all these parades?
The members of the parading organizations pay for the floats, bands, and everything else you see in a parade. Usually, the money is raised through the members’ dues and fund-raising events. The members on the floats usually pay for their throws. As far as police and clean-up, that’s a cost borne by the city because Mardi Gras brings so much tax revenue to the city.

What are marshals? Are those their horses?
Marshals (in New Orleans, they’re called captains) are members of parading societies that ride on horseback (though one Baldwin County group has them on motorcycles), helping to fill the gaps between floats and other units. Often, these are members who either prefer to be a marshal, rather than a float rider, or they haven’t attained enough seniority in the group to get a spot on a float. For the vast majority of them, those are not their horses, they are rented. The marshals usually take horseback riding lessons before going out on the parade route.
Why are MoonPies® such a popular throw?
As the story goes, maskers used to throw boxes of Cracker Jack to the crowds, but the city outlawed that because the boxes were hurting people. So some crafty masker happened upon MoonPies®. They’re Southern, they’re tasty, they’re kind of soft, and they don’t come in boxes. Before Cracker Jack, the city banned the throwing of confetti and unfurled serpentine (paper streamers) from floats because it was just too darn difficult to clean that stuff up. The first throw to be banned? Well, that would be flour, outlawed by Mayor Price in 1869. Young men on floats were fond of throwing big handfuls of flour at revelers, especially nicely dressed ones.

Any tips for getting more stuff at the parade?
Sure, become a young child or attractive young lady. Other than that, make yourself heard as well as seen, but don’t be obnoxious. Smile, laugh, have fun, and let the riders know that you really want what they’re throwing. And you’d be amazed how effective it is to make eye contact with a particular float rider. Always yell, “Thank you!” when you get something, and bring a small rake for pulling in stuff that didn’t make it to the barricade.

Can I jump over the barricades?
Not if you want to stay out of trouble. Mobile police are pretty good about making openings in the barricade at intersections until just before the parade arrives. Once the parade has reached you, and you jump the barricade, the police might just issue you a ticket that will cost $298.

What else do I need to know about the rules?
Obey the no-parking signs, including the temporary signs that say no parking during parade time. They will tow your car, and it’s expensive and a real pain to get it back. Also, no glass containers are allowed. Even if you have a gun permit, the police will arrest you for bringing a gun to a parade. Don’t throw ANYTHING at a float or anyone in a parade. They will arrest you for that. Pets, skateboards, motorized scooters, Silly String, and poppers are all banned.