Carnival season kicks off along the Gulf Coast

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Christmas wreaths and holiday parties are giving way to king cakes and street parades as the Carnival

season kicks off this weekend along the Gulf Coast.

In New Orleans, the noisy and colorful

streetcar ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows troupe will mark the first

street appearance

of the Carnival season. The costumed revelers will board a St.

Charles Avenue streetcar on Sunday, Twelfth Night, the traditional

start of the Carnival season that for many Christians also marks

the end of the Christmas season.

As a brass band plays, the masked troupe will sip champagne, toss the first Mardi Gras beads of the season and gobble up king

cake — Carnival's signature pastry topped with sugar in the traditional Carnival colors of purple, green and gold.

Also Sunday, a Joan of Arc-inspired walking club of revelers dressed in medieval-themed costumes will take to the streets

of New Orleans. They'll be costumed as knights, monks and peasants, and some will be on horseback.

On Monday morning, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is scheduled to greet royalty from the Rex and Zulu clubs at historic

Gallier Hall, where they'll unveil their official 2013 posters and eat king cake with captains from the city's other major

parading organizations.

Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday — falls on Feb.

12, and record crowds are expected with the NFL's Super Bowl

championship game being

held in New Orleans about a week earlier, on Feb. 3. In the weeks

leading up to Mardi Gras, more than 100 parades will roll

through streets or float down waterways in dozens of communities

along the Gulf Coast.

"Mardi Gras really is a shared cultural event that spans the entire Gulf Coast," said Beth Carriere, executive director of

the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Mardi Gras was first marked in 1699 when French explorers stopped for the festival along the Mississippi River, south of what

19 years later would become the settlement of New Orleans.

In the early 1700s, celebrations cropped up as French colonists settled in Mobile, Ala., and Biloxi, Miss. Mobile has the

oldest community celebration, dating from 1703. Those communities still hold dozens of parades in the weeks leading up to

Mardi Gras, and Mobile has a museum dedicated to its Carnival history.

There are the festive street parades, where watchers plead for beads, doubloons and other trinkets from maskers riding huge

floats. But there also are the private masked balls, at which debutantes of the season take their bow to society.

In coming weeks, the revelry will reach inland to such cities as Natchez, Miss., and Shreveport, La.

"Natchez is a river town just up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, so it has a lot of historical connections to New

Orleans, including Mardi Gras," said Rochelle Hicks, a former Natchez resident who now serves as executive director of the

Mississippi Tourism Association in Madison, Miss.

Hicks said that like New Orleans, Natchez

and other Mississippi towns have organized Carnival clubs with formal

balls, royalty

and float parades. Some clubs include Mardi Gras Indians in full

feather headdresses, marching bands and parades geared for

children with decorated wagons in place of floats.

In south Louisiana's Cajun country, Mardi Gras traditionally includes costumed revelers on horseback who ride from farm to

farm collecting birds and other ingredients for gumbo.

Some of the bigger parades in New Orleans will include celebrities. This year, actor Gary Sinise and New Orleans musicians

Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and Harry Connick Jr. will lead the parade of the Krewe of Orpheus on the evening of Lundi

Gras, the day before Fat Tuesday, and perform at the glitzy ball that follows.

Joining them in the parade will be Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actress Mariska Hargitay, the Imagination Movers — a New

Orleans-based rock band for kids — and Animal Planet's Tillman, the skateboarding bulldog.

The end of Carnival is marked by Ash Wednesday, the day after Fat Tuesday. In heavily Catholic south Louisiana, it'll mark

the start of Lent as the faithful prepare for Easter.