There’s more to Mardi Gras than beads and breasts. While pop culture focuses on the event’s rounder features – both kinds – in-the-know attendees immerse themselves in the unique cultural spectacle of Carnival as only New Orleans could do it.
The largest city in the state of Louisiana, New Orleans is a city of festivals and parties all year long, but none is grander than the marathon of revelry that makes up Mardi Gras. New Orleans’ population more than doubles in the lead up to the big day. The celebration includes 70 parades with hundreds of floats, musicians and blazing torches. Over a hundred balls are held each year and 12,700 tonnes of beads are thrown.
Some come for the masks, costumes, marching bands and uninhibited bashes on Bourbon Street. Others are drawn by the inspired jazz music, phenomenal food and time-honoured traditions. Whichever camp you fall into, the Mardi Gras motto remains the same: laissez les bon temps rouler.
Don your purple, green and gold, and let the good times roll.
Before The Beads
Mardi Gras came to North America from France, where it had been celebrated since the Middle Ages, but the fete’s roots predate the French. The tradition of springtime hedonism dates back to early pagan traditions and fertility rites. With the rise of the Catholic Church, Carnival was created as a period of merriment and feasting before the penitential season of Lent.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans began with elaborate masked balls in the late 1700s. Costumed revellers who couldn’t enter the private society dances continued the party in the streets. Over the years, parades and floats became part of the experience. Mardi Gras had its first King of Carnival, Rex, with the founding of the Rex Organization in 1872.
A new century brought with it many struggles. World Wars cancelled several Carnivals. The Prohibition of the Twenties and Great Depression of the Thirties put serious dampers on the party spirit. But Mardi Gras survived it all to become an even bigger sensation in the latter half of the 1900s.
Today Carnival is a year-round industry for New Orleans and known throughout the world as one of the year’s most debaucherous events. Mardi Gras is a mad and magnificent must-do that has more than earned its reputation as the wildest party in the United States.
Mardi Gras 101
If your idea of Mardi Gras is limited to flashing and public intoxication, you’re in for a surprise. Let’s start with the basics.
Lesson number one: Carnival is the season, Mardi Gras is the day. ‘Mardi Gras’ is French for ‘Fat Tuesday.’ It’s always celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday, so the date changes every year. The full celebration is called Carnival. It begins on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.
The Carnival season kicks off with a series of spectacular, invitation-only balls. Then, two weeks before Mardi Gras day, the parades begin. The oldest parade, which dates back to 1872, is put on by the Krewe of Rex. Krewes are private clubs that are responsible for hosting most of the events during Carnival.
As wild and lawless as the festivities may seem, they come to an end in strict fashion. At the stroke of midnight on Mardi Gras day, particularly on tourist-packed Bourbon Street, Lent starts and the party comes to a grinding halt. Newcomers may think they can get away with continuing to carouse, but a team of mounted police and street cleaners ensure the debauchery stops (or at least moves elsewhere).
Rolling With The Krewe
Mardi Gras would be nothing without the krewes. The city of New Orleans provides only the basic infrastructure for the event. Everything else is provided by the participants.
Over 60 krewes currently partake, each of which throws a private ball and a public parade during Carnival. Krewe members pay annual fees that range from $20 at smaller clubs to thousands of dollars per person per year at the bigger names. The money covers expenses like decorating parade floats and hosting parties. When you consider that the largest krewes consist of hundreds of members, that’s a lot of cash.
Among the most famous krewes are the Mistick Krewe of Comus, the Krewe of Proteus, Rex, Zulu, and the Knights of Momus. Some, like Endymion and Bacchus, have become so large in scale that they’ve been dubbed “Super Krewes.” Each krewe is known for its unique, sometimes wacky, personality and the free trinkets, called ‘throws,’ it tosses to the crowd during parades.
As neighbourhoods and cultures evolve, krewes come and go. Some of the more recent additions include the all-female Muses, formed in 2000, and the satirical (sometimes raunchy) Krewe d’Etat and Krewe du Vieux.
The grandaddy of all the krewes is Rex, established in 1872. Rex is the king of Mardi Gras and his entourage one of the oldest in New Orleans. The Krewe of Rex is responsible for giving Mardi Gras its three iconic colours: purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power.
Your first mistake is thinking Mardi Gras is a one-day celebration. Your second is thinking you can see it all. Plan ahead to catch the best parades. The big names have their draws, but following locals can also lead to hidden gems.
Endymion, Bacchus, Orpheus, Zulu and Rex throw the biggest ambulatory bashes. Try Krewe du Vieux for double entendres and sassiness, and Thoth for Ancient Egyptian flair. Proteus is the second oldest parading krewe, bringing a snapshot of 19th-century style to the 21st century.
The small, quirky parades offer an entirely different experience. There’s ‘tit Rex, which sees shoebox-sized mini-floats hand pulled through the St. Roch neighborhood, and the four-legged canine Krewe of Barkus. Even the geeks get in on the action with the sci-fi themed Krewe of Chewbacchus.
In addition to the major parades, keep an eye out for the haunting skeleton krewes who march in the early morning and the intricately-dressed Mardi Gras Indians. For the full list of parades and dates, visit the official Mardi Gras website.
Live It Up Like A Local
With strands of beads hitting your head, marching bands thumping your eardrums and boozed up co-eds trampling your toes, it’s easy to succumb to sensory overload. Mardi Gras fires on all cylinders, and you don’t want to be the asshole passed out in a pool of vomit before midnight.
Before you hit the Big Easy, brush up on our top tips for doing Mardi Gras like a pro.
- Arrive early. Carnival is so much more than Mardi Gras. For the most authentic experience, dive in early. The biggest parades and parties begin the weekend before Fat Tuesday. Locals party non-stop long before the big day hits.
- Relieve yourself responsibly. Unless you want a one-way ticket to Central Lockup, don’t empty your bladder in the street. Cops put up with a lot of boundary pushing during Carnival, but public urination is a serious offense and bathrooms can be hard to come by.
- Explore beyond the French Quarter. Bourbon Street is a stampede of sloshing beer, rowdy drunks and general mayhem. That may be exactly what you’re looking for, but even so, venture beyond the French Quarter to see a different side of the culturally diverse city.
- Eat. About that pool of vomit… the best way to avoid ending up in it is to fortify your stomach. Luckily, New Orleans cuisine is celebrated. Try a po’ boy sandwich, jambalaya, gumbo and a beignet while you’re in town. And don’t forget to sample Mardi Gras’ traditional sweet: the multi-coloured king cake.
- Pace yourself. It’s become a Carnival season cliché: Mardi Gras is a marathon, not a sprint. Spread out your drinking. Take regular trips to the john. Sleep when you can. Eat well. It’s the only way you’ll make it to the end.
- Be the spectacle. Mardi Gras is a phenomenon because participants make it so. Don a costume and collect the throws tossed from floats. A mask is an easy option, and anything purple, green, and gold will do. Bring a bag to tote around your throws. The most prized are the hand-painted coconuts from Zulu and the shoes from the Krewe of Muses. More common are beads and dubloons, the latter of which you’ll want to step on to stake your claim before reaching down to grab.
And finally, the most important rule of all: embrace the chaos. Mardi Gras is an opportunity to leave your everyday self at home and embrace the wild alter ego waiting to come out. Your own skin can wait until Tuesday midnight.