28 February – 10 March 2019
It is impossible to accurately describe Mardi Gras unless you have experienced it with a local.
Mardi Gras is not what I have seen on TV over the years. Well, it probably looks like that down in the renowned French Quarter among the tourists and drunks, but Mardi Gras is definitely not like that in other areas of the city. It still is a crazy experience but not ridiculously crazy.
How did I see Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras was people of all ages screaming alongside immense, creatively designed floats begging for junk. And everyone is having a wonderful time.
After 13 parades, 375+ floats, and a ton of beads, I am a pro.
For this year’s festivities, I visited my friend who lives in the Garden District. Thus, we were within a short walk for all the Uptown parades. I learned so much. For one, festivities go on and on and on. There is not one parade but many parades, not a few floats but scores of floats. It was a plethora of floats raining beads, plush toys, medallions, scarves, frisbees, koozies, toilet paper, tote bags, footballs, socks, candy, cups, more beads and bigger beads.
These are not simple floats. They are creative political and social statements, lights, camera and plenty of action. Each are decorated to the hilt support the parade’s theme, be it Egyptian mythology, dictators of banana-republics, films made in the state, or health care. Floats carry honored riders, all masked and exuberant, enjoying the evening and the free-flowing alcohol. It is their honor to be there. Krewes, those who create, support and ride the float, spend a year preparing and an evening tossing trinkets to and at the crowds swarming their float. It is revelry beyond description. And it seems one never has enough beads.
Parades go on for weeks within the neighborhoods bordering the French Quarter of New Orleans. There was no need to venture into the Quarter for their version of revelry. A few blocks from our abode on St. Charles there were 2-3 parades a day. That’s a lot of screaming and beads.
Parades were a plethora of themes: Muses, Hermès, Le Krewe D’Etat, Morpheus, Tucks, Thoth, Bacchus, Proteus, and Orpheus. For a change, we planned ahead and parked the car outside the “box” in order to attend a Mid-City parade. The “box” is the streets adjacent to the parade routes where all traffic is shut down for the duration of the parades.
Mid-City’s Endymion parade is worth the drive and parking challenge (it helped we parked at her son’s house). Endymion is Mardi Gras’ largest parade with 37 floats and thousands of riders. People prepare by setting up tents and chairs, BBQs and bars the night before. The krewe’s motto is “Throw ’til it Hurts.” I’m am not clear who it hurts more, as being hit my beads can sting. The parade, rolling for the first time in 1967, features the longest float of all the parades, the Pontchatrain Beach featuring nine sections and over 300 feet long. Endymion rolls down Canal Street and through the Superdome where they later sponsor their party and concert. The Krewe brags of over 15 million throws along a parade route of some 3.5 miles. I suppose that is where the “Throw ’til it Hurts” comes about.
The grand finale of Mardi Gras is Fat Tuesday with the popular parades of Zulu and Rex. Neither should be missed. Zulu is particularly interesting for its costumes, history and traditions. Men marched in this parade as early as 1901 and the tradition has grown into one of the favorite parades of the season with those along the parade route hoping to catch one of their popular coconut throws.
It would be very hard to pick a favorite parade. Each parade has a personality. Do not expect to go to Mardi Gras and attend one parade. Locals and visitors attend several parades, scream a lot, catch beads and become part of tradition and history.
NOLA has the helpful “Parade Tracker” App which keeps details the theme, route, timing and best of all the “throws.” It is important the check what is being tossed to the crowds. Each Krewe buys their own throws (an expensive privilege for which there is a waiting list years long.) A special edition newspaper and online links explains the history and tradition behind the parades.
The liquor does seem to flow. There is far less drunkenness than I expected, but I was also attending the local neighborhood parades. The French Quarter is an entirely different experience. I found the people of the Uptown and Mid-City routes very generous and cordial. There was the occasional total ass but alcohol does that to the best of people. Everyone wants those beads, we all find ourselves begging for more. We suffer the indignities of not only begging for a dime store feather boa, but being literally pelted with beads and cups.
Canopies, BBQs, bars, and even port-a-potty tents line the parade routes. Beads and toilet paper flutter from the trees. The street overflows with paper, cups, plastic, and trash. Evidently, even little kids know you never retrieve anything from the street. It becomes a game of toss and catch or duck.
Floats, more brass bands than I could imagine, horses, Flambeaux (flaming torches that have been carried in the parades since 1857), dancers, and the wonderful Laissez Boys all create an atmosphere of revelry. It is all in fun and lots of fun.
A local can show you the ropes, help you understand the history and tradition of Mardi Gras. It is up to you to have the fun.