Roll out the king cakes, plastic beads and Mardi Gras masks. Carnival season has begun in New Orleans. Jan. 6, the 12th night on the biblical calendar, marked the beginning of the 153rd annual pre-Lenten celebration

Before it wraps up Feb. 24, almost 100 parades will have rolled in the area and thousands of riders will have thrown tonnes of glitzy gee-gaws to what organizers hope will be huge crowds.

“The celebration is pretty local for a couple of weeks,” said Mardi Gras historian Errol Laborde. “But the parades kick in just before the end of the month, and then it’s pretty much nonstop.”

Mayor Ray Nagin acknowledged the start of the season with the city’s annual king cake party, slicing up dozens of pastries covered with purple, green and gold icing, and each holding a tiny, plastic baby.

Tradition has it that the person who finds the baby in their slice must supply the next king cake.

King cakes, believed to have originated in France around the 12th century, are eaten throughout Carnival season, but on 12th night, or the Feast of the Epiphany, they mark the arrival of the three wise men bearing gifts 12 days after Christmas.

In New Orleans, with its tourism-oriented economy, the celebration represents both fun and business.

Unlike last year, when the NBA All-Star game and the Bowl Championship Series title game were added to the city’s usual lineup of the Bayou Classic, New Orleans Bowl, and Sugar Bowl, this year Mardi Gras will stand as the solitary big money draw between the Sugar Bowl and Jazz Fest.

Mardi Gras generates more than $1 billion US in spending each year, said Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Visitors and Convention Bureau.

Mardi Gras had showed steady growth in attendance and spending since 1990 before dropping after hurrican Katrina in 2005, but the event has been rebuilding since then.

Billed as the Greatest Free Show on Earth, there is no charge to those attending the parades, but for those riding on the floats, the cost can be high. The riders shoulder the cost of all “throws” — the strings of beads, toys and trinkets showered on crowds along the parade route.

At Randazzo’s Camellia City Bakery, one of more than a dozen bakeries that ship king cakes nationally and internationally, orders for king cakes began coming in before Christmas, said saleswoman Cindi Picou, and will continue through Fat Tuesday.

“We’ll send out more than 2,000 cakes in the next few weeks,” Picou said.

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