A New Orleans Mardi Gras is perhaps the weirdest experience of my life. For those new to the blog, we are outdoorsy people. So, prior to us seriously contemplating going to Carnival, I had no idea what the event was even about. If you are like me you probably think Mardi Gras is all about boobs, booze, and beads. In a way, I wasn’t wrong. I was also very misinformed about the event, the holiday, the city’s level of permissiveness, and the nature of those who attend. If you are someone who seeks out unique cultural experiences, Mardi Gras should be on your travel list.
The History of Carnival
Mardi Gras for those who aren’t aware is the final celebration of Carnival which is celebrated throughout the winter. Like so many other holidays Carnival and subsequently Mardi Gras is a religious celebration that has totally lost its original meaning. The celebration of Carnival starts with the Christian day of Epiphany (usually January 6th) and continues throughout the season culminating in Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras translates from French as Fat Tuesday. It’s the final feast prior to the fast of the Lent season which starts on Ash Wednesday.
Mardi Gras Today
Today, a New Orleans Mardi Gras is the place to be for the Carnival celebration in the United States. While it was originally a way of celebrating life and finishing off the food that would spoil with a single feast prior to a reverent 40-day fast, it is now a celebration to excess. It has grown from that single day to an entire season of food, drink, parties, and parades run by different Krewes. All of this celebration is seemingly dedicated to excess and junk and the atmosphere of a New Orleans Mardi Gras is surprisingly intoxicating.
Mardi Gras = Money
The New Orleans Mardi Gras season has been built into an economic windfall for the city. Carnival is when the city comes alive. From the first week in January all the way through the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (Fat Tuesday) the city is packed with parades and parties. The metropolis thinks nothing of shutting down major streets for the parades through the heart of the city because it brings in a huge amount of tourism dollars which fuels the Big Easy’s economy.
The Krewes (basically a group-run parade) all have a theme and there are Krewes and Super Krewes. Basic Krewes will roll in decorative floats that are little more than busses with sound systems and throw beads to onlookers. The Super Krewes have elaborately decorated themed floats with support vehicles. Some of these floats would rival those found at the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade in New York. The Super Krewes usually have very specific throws. They throw themed beads, medallions, cups, decorative coconuts, and other trinkets. In New Orleans, the parades crawl through the streets. The Macy’s Day Parade floats look like they are equipped with jet engines in comparison. New Orleans’ Krewes will inch their way across the urban city streets taking 5 – 6 hours to finish their routes.
Misconceptions of Mardi Gras
The media has painted a picture of a New Orleans Mardi Gras as being an event where everyone there is hammered and if ladies leave with beads they showed off their goods to earn them. While drinking on the street is permitted city-wide, most onlookers are sober. However, there are a few who by 9:00 AM appear to have lost the ability to contemplate the word sober. The city prohibits glass bottles for fear of them being used as weapons. Extreme forms of debauchery are also still jailable offenses throughout most of the city. Law enforcement is almost overwhelming with officers within view on every street of every parade route to ensure the safety of the millions who are in attendance citywide throughout the season.
The French Quarter
If you want to stay away from the worst of a New Orleans Mardi Gras don’t go to the French Quarter at night during Carnival. Jennifer and I were told that the police mostly turn a blind eye to what happens in the French Quarter unless it is endangering people’s lives. So don’t go there after dark unless you are seeking out some of the worst debaucheries our modern society has to offer. The good news is that you won’t be missing out on any of the good parades, as none of the big Krewes pass through the Quarter.
During our New Orleans Mardi Gras visit we attended three Krewes and didn’t see one bare boob on the street, but I did see a lot of plastic ones along with plastic penises. One rather alarmingly drunk and busty individual did show off her coconuts directly in front of 3 police officers. I suspect that the tiny coconut bra barely covered her, but the cops didn’t blink an eye. The police officers are really there in case fights break out or people start streaking. However, most people we ran into were very friendly and respectful. Still, a New Orleans Mardi Gras, in my opinion, is really for people twenty-one or older.
Go and Experience a New Orleans Mardi Gras
The street food all smells amazing. The music from the various floats and parties blares incredibly loud and sounds like a terrible remix of current and classic favorites. Most of the speakers sound blown. The streets are literally covered in massive amounts of trash and don’t get me started on the quest for a public toilet. But still, I can say that the experience is one that is worth having. Just, make sure you plan ahead as the city books up quickly, especially for Fat Tuesday.
A New Orleans Mardi Gras is a Bizarre, Unifying Tradition
I found the whole experience of Mardi Gras to be a weird one. The whole city comes together in this bizarre tradition. You can have a beer on the street standing next to a cop, a lawyer, a college student, and a truck driver. Everyone at that moment has one thing in common. You are all trying to get someone riding by on a float to throw you a trinket that you don’t really want. For the most part, if those trinkets are flying and intercepted everyone involved is very cordial and no one gets upset. In most cases, people will hand off the trinkets to children (I don’t recommend bringing children but they are there). I think it is the sense of comradery between so many different walks of life that appeals to so many and makes a New Orleans Mardi Gras an experience worth having.