For city residents, the 300-year-old Mardi Gras tradition is 'in our DNA.'

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Across New Orleans, residents are stitching final touches onto costumes, formulating parade-watching plans and gearing up for the biggest free party in the nation.

Mardi Gras is set to erupt again Tuesday, an annual city ritual rooted in nearly 300 years of tradition.

For the uninitiated, the citywide party may seem like a single-day booze-and-bare-breast bacchanal. But there's much more to the revelry. It's a crucial force in bringing together residents of a special city that has endured so much.

Carnival is not just the one day. It's a two-week event that kicks off each year with the satirical Krewe du Vieux parade and culminates on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.

In between, there are 62 parades in and around New Orleans featuring bead-tossing floats and marching bands. The parades roll through residential neighborhoods, making it a very kid-friendly affair. Nearly 1 million people descend onto New Orleans each year for the two-week revelry, injecting more than $750 million into the local economy.

Booze is involved, of course. Even parents celebrating with kids are often pulling a wagon full of costumed children with one hand, a plastic go cup with their favorite cocktail in the other. But for locals, the true party happens far from the saturated Bourbon Street festivities that dominate the national media. It happens in garden parties and crawfish boils in the fenced-in patios of homes near the parade routes in neighborhoods such as Uptown, Mid-City and the Lower Garden District.

"It's genetically encoded in our DNA," says Arthur Hardy, Carnival historian and Mardi Gras Guide publisher. "It's such a part of our fabric. I can't imagine New Orleans without it."

"Happy Mardi Gras!" is a common refrain among locals in the days leading up to the big day, even though it's not yet technically Fat Tuesday. It's an acknowledgement of something special shared by residents, something that endures through bad economies, corruption, high murder rates and devastating hurricanes. Something uniquely theirs. There's a sincere cheeriness in the voice when it's said, as if both sides understand what's coming.

As in all other aspects of life, technology and modernity have caught up to the tradition, which traces its earliest roots in New Orleans to the 1730s. Today, parade tracker apps for smartphones pinpoint exactly where the start of a parade is passing. Another Web app, "Airpnp," shows on a map where the best bathrooms are on a parade route, highly coveted intel during Mardi Gras.

But, by and large, the festivities remain firmly rooted in tradition. By city ordinance, no corporate sponsorships are allowed for floats. The multimillion-dollar parades are financed entirely by membership dues and entrance fees to the extravagant balls held by parade organizers.

From toddlers to octogenarians, the bulk of the masses swarming through the city on Fat Tuesday are decked out in some form of costume. Mardi Gras in New Orleans creates an opposite-universe effect where those not in costume actually feel out of place.

Former neighbors or long-lost friends – many separated by the chaos of Katrina – might peer at each other through masks and shriek with delight at finding one another in the morass. The party rolls on all night and through daybreak.

Residents shed inhibitions and toast their town with tourists, forgetting the shootings and storms that plague their city and happy in the knowledge that, at least for a day, their city is picture-perfect.

Former USA TODAY New Orleans correspondent Rick Jervis is now based in Austin.

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