A common reaction to my excitement for Mardi Gras from non New Orleanian is “I wouldn’t like it, too much partying”. So I’m here to set the record straight.
Bourbon Street is not Mardi Gras, neither are balcony throws, neither are boobs. You can totally have all of these things if you want them, but you have to seek them out and they’re not part of the main Mardi Gras attraction: parades. Bourbon Street is a sight worth seeing if you’re up for it, it’s wall to wall people with some religious protestors thrown in with big signs about Jesus for good measure. They fit right in with the Ass Beer signs and dangerous Hand Grenades (everclear and koolaid basically).
But Bourbon Street is not Mardi Gras, it’s the Times Square or Fisherman’s Wharf of New Orleans (if both of these places had more strip clubs and drunkeness). It’s also called “Carnival” not Mardi Gras until the actual day, but whatever, I’m a transplant.
Mardi Gras is a party, but it’s one you can bring your kids to for the most part. It’s about krewes, music, dancing, pageantry, king cake, kids, and throws. Often you will see 3 generations at parades vying for the best throws. Still confused? Let me break it down for you:
King Cake: This is a delicious Mardi Gras tradition that comes in multiple flavors, two types, and various sizes. There is a french version and a New Orleans version, obviously the New Orleans one is the one people usually go for down here. It’s an oval cake with a hole in it, frosting, cinnamon, and either sprinkles or dye in the Mardi Gras colors. There are also sometimes fillings like praline, strawberry, etc. It’s danish type dough and goes especially well dipped in coffee. There is also a little plastic baby hidden inside and tradition is that the person who gets the baby is supposed to buy the next king cake or throw the next Mardi Gras party, depending on who you ask. You can buy your own or gift one. We’re on king cake number 4 currently.
Krewes: These are the groups that throw the parades. They’re private profit groups whose members pay dues and buy their throws for the parades. They can be very costly to join and the big ones have long waiting lists to join. Some are even divided into members and members who get to ride in the parade because they’re so big. The oldest originated in the 1800s and some are only a few years old. Each Mardi Gras season they throw a private ball and host or participate in a parade. They own or rent the floats, members fill each one, and they throw things to the adoring public as they pass by. Everyone must wear a mask on the float, and they often wear costumes as well. Each parade usually has their own theme as well each year. There are no corporate sponsors allowed and the city does not help pay for any of the parade items.
Throws: These are where the beads come in. Only tourists buy beads, everyone else catches them during Mardi Gras and wears them only during Mardi Gras with few exceptions. The Krewe members have to buy or make their own throws and some spend thousands of dollars on this. I think there are quite a few bead shops in China being kept in business by Mardi Gras in New Orleans. There are a huge range of throws and they differ Krewe to Krewe. The beads range from generic to large to customized by the Krewe and their theme. There are also lots of light up throws. These can be earrings, necklaces, rings, head pieces, blow up things (I saw a sax last night), bouncy balls, etc. Then there are the plushies, these can be animals, fruit (we have a banana), or specialized for the theme or Krewe. There are also toys like frisbees, footballs, swords, spears, etc. Each Krewe also throws cups that usually have the name of the Krewe, year, and theme on them. The most coveted throws are the special throws unique to different Krewes. Not all do this, but I think most do at this point. The most well known are the shoes thrown by Muses and the coconuts thrown by Zulu. The specialized throws I have right now are compacts that were individually decorated and purses that were individually decorated. Hoping for a shoe tonight! Everyone rushes the floats when they go by and you’re vying for the Krewe’s attention, trying to get them to throw you something good! People bring signs, put kids on their shoulders, dress up, etc. The biggest competition are old ladies and kids. I was wondering what to do with my hefty collection of beads and discovered you can donate them to charities who the sell them to Krewes for next year.
Music & Dancing: There are a lot of events going on during Mardi Gras where you can see dancing groups or different bands playing special shows. The parades all feature at least a brass band, but most of them also feature high school/middle school marching bands and dance groups. The bands and dance groups are often in multiple parades. It’s pretty funny checking out faces and getting a feel for who’s into it and who wishes they were doing anything but marching several miles while carrying an instrument/baton/etc. It can get weird though. One of the parades had a dancing group of young girls stop for a bit in front of us (the parades are constantly stoping and starting) and they were dancing to the “I Don’t Mind” song. If you’re not familiar, it’s a song that is about how it’s ok to be a stripper. No interpretation needed, this is the chorus:
Shawty, I don’t mind if you dance on a pole
That don’t make you a hoe
Shawty, I don’t mind when you work until three
If you’re leaving with me
Go make that money, money, money
Your money, money, money
‘Cause I know how it is, go and handle your biz
And get that money, money, money
Your money, money, money
You can take off your clothes
Long as you coming home, girl, I don’t mind
It got real weird. If you’re reading this, DJ who thought this was an ok song for 14 year olds to be dancing in public to, I’d be happy to put together a dance playlist of non stripper songs for the girls. Just comment below. Dream big.
There are adult groups dancing too, lots of grown ladies which is pretty cool as well and less likely to make you feel like you should have an intervention with someone.
Kids: Kids are a big part of Mardi Gras as you’ve hopefully gotten from this. They’re in the parades and they’re catching the throws. Lots of the throws are kid oriented and it’s fun to watch them running around so excited.
Pageantry: From the costumes, to the parade decorations, to the bystanders it’s a party. Colored wigs, masks, beads, glitter, feathers, you name it! There are also quite a few horses in the parades, sometimes dancing. Mardi Gras day is also traditionally celebrated in some sort of costume, anything you like.
So that’s my breakdown of Mardi Gras as an outsider. This is my third one and they get better each time. It also helps that I don’t have a night job this time and am not with a bunch of guys learning that girls can be categorized with the binary system (you know who you are). I’ve been a big hater of February as a Vermonter (the month that is cold and grey and you’re not even close to the end of winter and have been in winter for months), but now that I’m in New Orleans and Mardi Gras is almost always in February, I think February and I are going to turn over a new leaf.