World’s most colorful carnival celebrations

Story highlights

Mardi Gras falls on March 4 this year

New Orleans and other festive cities are rolling out floats and costumes

Many celebrations have their heart and soul in working-class neighborhoods

CNN  — 

It’s carnival season, that pre-Lent period of collective frenzy that celebrates overindulgence and transgression before Ash Wednesday ushers in a more sober time of prayer, penance and abstention in the weeks leading up to Easter.

But the roots of carnival are both older and newer than the Christian traditions that started in Europe and have spread with colonialism throughout much of the world. Ancient Greek and Roman pagan rituals as well as the folklore, music and dance of colonized peoples have forged colorful expressions of each country’s respective history and cultures.

Creative disguises and parody are characteristic of carnival in many countries, which historically gave oppressed and marginalized groups the opportunity to subvert norms of class, race and gender.

Here are some of the most dazzling carnival celebrations around the world.

New Orleans (January 6 - March 4)

As winter drags into March, the Big Easy will explode into a cacophony of color, music and dance. Carnival started here January 6, but it’s the weekend before Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday (March 4), that has become the biggest street party in the United States.

Contrary to reputation, carnival here is largely a family friendly affair, with the most authentic events taking place far from the rum-soaked, topless naughtiness of the French Quarter. If you’re looking to experience the unique traditions of New Orleans’ carnival, you need to find the “krewes,” neighborhood social clubs that organize their own parades, complete with flashy floats and their own carnival king and queen.

Be sure to bring bags to catch the “throws” – beads, stuffed animals and other trinkets that are tossed to the crowd. Information about parade schedules, routes and other carnival events and history is available online, although routes are subject to change up until the day of the parade.

New Orleans also illustrates the story of carnival throughout the New World: Groups that were initially excluded from the festivities, especially