NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The countdown to Mardi Gras begins Saturday in New Orleans as Carnival season kicks off with dozens of costumed revelers and a brass band set to crowd onto a streetcar for a nighttime ride down historic St. Charles Avenue. Meanwhile, a walking club in the French Quarter will march in its annual procession honoring Joan of Arc.


While it's a secular celebration, Carnival in New Orleans — and around the world — is strongly linked to Christian and Roman Catholic traditions. The season begins on Jan. 6, the 12th day after Christmas, and continues until Mardi Gras, known as Fat Tuesday, which is the final day of feasting, drinking and revelry before Ash Wednesday and the fasting associated with Lent.

New Orleans has the largest and best-known Carnival celebrations in the U.S., with street parties, fancy balls and parades from simple neighborhood-based walking clubs to elaborate high-tech extravaganzas with massive floats laden with flashing lights and giant animated figures.

Other Louisiana and Gulf Coast communities also celebrate. Mobile, Alabama, lays claim to the nation's oldest Mardi Gras observances.


Saturday's events include the annual streetcar ride by the Phunny Phorty Phellows, a group of masked and costumed men and women aboard a New Orleans streetcar that rumbles out of the cavernous public transit barn in the Carrollton neighborhood before rolling onto St. Charles Avenue.

Like much of New Orleans Carnival, it's a tradition that has evolved. The current Phellows first assembled in 1981, a rebirth of a satirical Carnival krewe that took to the streets in 1878 and ceased parading in 1898, according to history provided by the group.

In the French Quarter, the yearly parade by the Krewe de Jeanne d' Arc marking the birthday of the French hero marches on a route that carries them past a golden statue of their namesake. This year's guests include a delegation from Orléans, France.

While the parade is cast as a tribute to Joan of Arc, participants end the parade with a ceremony marking the end of the Christmas season and the arrival of Carnival, krewe captain Antoinette Alteriis said.


Locals embrace the traditions of Mardi Gras but the event also is a much-welcome generator of commerce in a city famous for its bars, restaurants and a tourism-dependent economy. That economy took a big hit when parades and other festivities were largely shut down in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mark Romig of tourism agency New Orleans & Co. said there has been a strong rebound.

“It's been a very dramatic return,” Romig said. “We saw it steadily increase beginning in ‘22. This past year, ’23, was amazing, we felt very good about it.”


Romig said he is optimistic Carnival tourism numbers will be even better this year, even though the season is relatively brief.

New Orleans always starts celebrating on Jan. 6 but the end-date each season varies, depending on the variable dates of Easter and Lent. This year, it’s a relatively short season, culminating on Feb. 13.

Saturday’s parades in New Orleans are a prelude to other small parades set for January and the series of larger, major parades that roll over a 12-day period beginning this year on Feb. 2.


When the Joan of Arc parade ends, participants will mark the coming of Carnival with a ceremony including king cake, according to Alteriis. The rings of pastry adorned with purple, green and gold sugar or icing are a signature delicacy of the season.

Local grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants annually do brisk business in king cake sales, some offering them up days before the arrival of Carnival, despite a venerable if loosely followed custom holding that it isn't proper to snack on king cake before Jan. 6.


In 2022, some parade routes were shortened due to a depleted police force and crime concerns. Routes were restored in 2023 as the city got help with crowd control from neighboring police jurisdictions, as well as the usual contingent of Louisiana State Police that comes in each year to beef up the law enforcement presence.