So maybe you’ve never been to New Orleans on Mardi Gras, but you know what I’m talking about: The beads! The king cake! The masks! The festooned parades of purple, green, and gold. Yep, New Orleans may be synonymous with its diverse, Creole heritage and the intense pre-Lenten party scene, but the world is big, folks!
The infamous carnival season is global, and it’s been here for centuries. That word — carnival — comes from the Latin words carne, flesh, and vale, goodbye. It’s our last chance to bid farewell to the flesh before the Lenten season of penance by which we turn our lives around in preparation for the Easter feast. And it reaches a crescendo in Mardis Gras (literally, “fat Tuesday”), the day of indulgence that loosens belt loops across continents in anticipation for 40 days of self-denial.
Don’t get me wrong, I love pairing colorful cakes with a plastic baby Jesus, but there are so many other traditions around the world that are worth exploring. Here’s what’s going down in five other cities — use these ideas to add some flavor to your Mardi Gras party this year.
Idea #1: Burn a sinful straw man
Cologne (Köln), Germany
Anyone who has been to Germany knows that they take their parties seriously, which is maybe why they actually begin their Fat Tuesday party the Thursday before (and depending on the region, as early as November 11!). But things really heat up the last night when everyone lights carnival bonfires called Nubbelverbrennung in the streets near the pubs. Partiers then proceed to burn decorated straw men, which symbolize turning away from an old life of sin. After this symbolic cremation, the night is ended with a giant fish dinner, because Lent.
Idea #2: Attack your friends with oranges
Taking a food fight to the next level, these Italians aren’t afraid to pelt an orange. In an attempt to re-enact a battle that took place between locals and invading Napoleonic troops in the early 19th century, locals in the area come together for some hard-hitting revelry, which kicks off an epic festival filled with music and parade floats — and lots and lots of citrus in the air — culminating on Fat Tuesday.
Idea #3: Throw smoked fish out the window
Dunkirk (Dunkerque), France
Dating back to the early 17th century, this area’s largest party didn’t just kick off the start Lent, but was a goodbye party for their beloved fisherman who would venture all the way to Newfoundland and Iceland to bring back cod. Centuries later, it’s evolved to become huge gathering that attracts tens of thousands of people and culminates in an orchestra full of musicians dressed as fishermen. The musicians march from the beach to the city square to join a crowd ready catch 1,000 pounds of wrapped, smoked herring thrown down from a balcony. That’s one way to start fish season!
Idea #4: Make your own lantern
Known as “the only Protestant carnival in the world,” this party actually begins the Monday after Ash Wednesday, possibly in an effort to differentiate itself from the Catholic Mardi Gras. Right at 4 a.m., all of the lights of Basel are turned off, including the street lamps, while beautiful lanterns color the street, making the entire city glow in a surreal pre-party beauty.
Idea #5: Don matching masks at dawn
This tiny town does Mardi Gras like no other city, incorporating customs from the early Medieval era. On Fat Tuesday, nearly 1,000 men (dubbed “Gilles” — a local honor) begin their parade at 4 a.m. dressed up in a somewhat eerie wax mask and holding wooden sticks (to ward off evil). Later, they give out (or sometimes throw) oranges during fireworks at night. The result is enchanting — it throws you back to a very different world — which is no wonder the UNESCO called the tradition a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”