NEW ORLEANS - Christmas wreaths and holiday parties gave way to king cakes and street parades as the Carnival season kicked off last week along the Gulf Coast.

In New Orleans, the noisy and colorful streetcar ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows troupe marked the first street appearance of the Carnival season. The costumed revelers boarded a St. Charles Avenue streetcar on 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 played, the masked troupe sipped champagne, tossed the first Mardi Gras beads of the season and gobbled up king cake - Carnival's signature pastry topped with sugar in the traditional Carnival colors of purple, green and gold.

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Another Twelfth Night tradition: A Joan of Arc-inspired walking club of revelers dressed in medieval-themed costumes on the streets of New Orleans costumed as knights, monks and peasants, and some on horseback.

Last Monday, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu greeted royalty from the Rex and Zulu clubs at historic Gallier Hall, where they unveiled their official 2013 posters and ate 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 like New Orleans, Natchez and other Mississippi towns have organized Carnival clubs with formal balls, royalty and float parades. Some clubs include 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, when Lent begins as the faithful prepare for Easter.

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