Mardi Gras is always on a Tuesday but it’s different each year, coinciding with the Christian religious calendar that sets movable seasons and dates like Lent and Easter. The 2012 date is this Tuesday, February 21.

In New Orleans, it is a few weeks of ‘letting it all hang out’ style celebrating culminating in a day of total drunken craziness and debauchery. Well, it is also a family day for dressing in costumes and watching parades. Which end of that spectrum depends on what neighborhood you spend time in that day. I’ve seen both sides. I have also been to some of the more sane celebrations called Mardi Gras Balls, which are dress up pageantries of a costumed royal nature, during which the King and Queen of the Krewe (private club/organization) preside over the merriment.

Everyone should experience Mardi Gras once in their lives. It might be the only time you can participate in public drunkenness and near-nudity and not be arrested. Harming somebody will land you in jail, but not much else. I am not advocating any of this behavior, by the way, but it is definitely a sight to behold. During the adult years of my life in that town I was certainly drunk on Fat Tuesday (the English translation of Mardi Gras) but never naked (in public).

It’s kind of ironic that such a crazy day is tied to religion. The logic is that it’s a time to party hard before the somberness of Lent. Hey, who am I to judge.

It is entirely possible to enjoy that day and season without a drop of alcohol. The parades involve intricately decorated floats, marching bands featuring New Orleans music styles among others. Some parades have celebrity Kings and Queens. Most parade Krewes use “traditional” float designs but there are a few on Mardi Gras day itself that make floats on flatbed trucks.

Mardi Gras is a great day for socializing but maybe also a day for escaping. Schools, government offices and most non-tourist businesses are closed that day and neighborhoods that don’t have parades in them are empty. When I was a kid, my Dad worked in an office near one of the main parade routes, so our family used that as a base for the day. In high school I had friends with family homes near parade routes and my college fraternity used to rent hotel rooms or whole buildings near the action.

I haven’t been to Mardi Gras since a few years after college so I don’t even know if I’d enjoy it now, although it could be a lot of fun to go back there with friends who have never had the experience and show them around.

Mardi Gras is not my favorite huge public New Orleans celebration, however. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival takes that honor. That one includes two consecutive weekends at the end of April and beginning of May, with a multi-stage event at a race track infield as the main music, food and art anchors. I’d do that one every year if I could. My last Jazz Fest visit was 2007. I had hoped to go again this year but can’t. Maybe 2013. I’ll write something about that one later.

Closing with the only Cajun French I know, and the one sentence that sums up the whole spirit of these events and the city of New Orleans itself: Laissez les bons temps rouler! Translation: Let the good times roll!