Celebration gets a bad rap but it’s actually a great party

Over the years, proposals to visit New Orleans’ bacchanalian Mardi Gras celebrations have earned disdain similar to that of seeing the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Once considered items for a fun bucket list, both have reputations of being more trouble than they’re worth.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans gets a particularly bad rap. Yes, Bourbon Street is renowned for its displays of public drunkenness and other, ahem, risqué behavior. But if you haven’t been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, you might not know that Bourbon Street is just a very small part of the vibrant, weeklong party.  

Here are some reasons why you should make it a point to check out Mardi Gras at least once in your life, if only to enjoy the spectacle.

A Brief History of the Festival

The Laissez Boys (on motorized La-Z-Boys) demonstrate the standard sense of humor at Mardi Gras.
The Laissez Boys (on motorized La-Z-Boys) demonstrate the standard sense of humor at Mardi Gras.

Today, Mardi Gras is celebrated during the week leading up to “Fat Tuesday” on February 13, or the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Its origins date back thousands of years to when Christianity arrived in Rome and religious leaders decided to incorporate the immensely popular Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia into the new faith instead of trying to abolish them. In the days leading up to Lent, merrymakers would binge on all the rich, fatty foods like meat, eggs, milk, lard and cheese in anticipation of the 40 days of fasting and penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. 

The first recognized Mardi Gras parade occurred in 1857, according to History.com, when a secret society of New Orleans businessmen called the Mistick Krewe of Comus organized a torch-lit Mardi Gras procession with marching bands and rolling floats. Since then, krewes have remained a major fixture of the parade scene, sponsoring the various parades and developing their own unique brands of swag thrown from the floats.

What To Expect

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is whatever you want to make it. The whole city seemingly shuts down to celebrate starting the week before Fat Tuesday (which of course isn’t totally true — there are countless people working around the clock keeping restaurants, bars, music venues, transportation and the like open and hopping). That said, you can participate in the festival in whatever way you feel comfortable — attend parades, listen to world-class live music, shop, indulge in some fantastic Creole cuisine or just enjoy some prime people-watching. 

The Parades

Mardi Gras is renowned for its parades. Starting a week before Fat Tuesday, daytime parades are family-friendly events that happen a few times every day. No one ever believes me when I say this, but kids are an expected part of the revelry! Locals have a tradition of building these adorable, specialized high chairs atop ladders for their little ones, so they can sit safely above the crowds and catch beads without being part of the scrum. The parades go on for miles and feature elaborate floats, marching bands, step teams and impressive drum lines. (Check out some videos of my personal favorite group, The 610 Stompers.) Night parades can be a bit more rowdy and the crowd is generally older, but that’s mostly because they’re later. Marchers carry huge blazing torches, known as flambeaux, to light the way.

Writer Caitlin Manner celebrating Mardi Gras in an inflatable T. rex costume.
Writer Caitlin Manner celebrating Mardi Gras in an inflatable T. rex costume.

Floats give out “throws” that vary based on the krewe, ranging from your standard Mardi Gras plastic beads to signature throws like bedazzled stiletto shoes (Krewe of Muses),  treasured golden coconuts (Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club) or hand-decorated purses (Mystic Krewe of Nyx). The trick to getting a sweet throw tossed at you is to get krewe members’ attention by yelling the phrase “throw me something mister!” (We’re not kidding. It’s adorably quaint.) Alternatively, you can wow them by having a spectacular costume that draws their attention. [Author’s note: I attended in 2020 dressed in an inflatable T-Rex costume. It was such a big hit, I was rewarded by getting “bombed,” which is when a float stops briefly and krewe members throw everything they have at you all at once. It was both exhilarating and terrifying, and I’ve never felt so honored in my life.]

The Music

New Orleans is known for its love of music, and Mardi Gras is no exception. Bars and nightclubs host parties and concerts every night during the festival, but you’ll want to choose your venues carefully. There are multiple options to hear live performances on Bourbon Street and in the French Quarter, but Frenchmen Street or Magazine Street will most likely be more enjoyable, as they cater to locals.

Planning Advice

Some planning is necessary to really enjoy yourself, especially if you don’t like battling crowds. It’s a good idea to plan your meals in advance to avoid long wait times, for example, and book your lodging by January at the latest.

Parades are held throughout the city, and while other things tend to run on Mardi Gras time (i.e., slightly chaotic and unpredictable), the parades adhere to a tight itinerary. (You can see this year’s schedule, as an example, here.) This is helpful for planning your own parade viewing. Most people scout out the parade routes in advance so they can plan ideal locations to set up folding chairs, those adorable ladder seats and coolers. 

Additionally, if you want to fit in, we highly recommend you plan a very specific kind of wardrobe. Sequins, flashy bright colors (particularly green, gold and purple), and gaudy accessories are highly encouraged. Costumes are pretty much expected, but the more unique or well-crafted get-ups are treasured in ways you won’t experience anywhere else. It’s also a good idea to wear closed-toe shoes — the more comfortable the better. Parade crowds are known for “dropping” their drinks and food in the midst of the excitement, and the street gets disgusting pretty quickly, so waterproof shoes are an added plus. (Props to the people who clean the streets after a parade, though; it happens remarkably quickly and thoroughly.)

What to Avoid

For the most part, debauchery only takes place in the French Quarter. Although the news media enjoys highlighting that aspect of the celebrations, most Mardi Gras veterans avoid the area unless they want to partake. The district does not host any parades, and it is the only area where revealing costumes and flashing for beads is tolerated. (Even so, the one time I ventured there during Mardi Gras, I didn’t see any of that behavior at all.)

Finally, never, ever bend down to pick up a “throw” off the ground. Not only is it considered in poor taste and very bad luck, but it can be dangerous. If the crowd surges forward when you’re bent over you can be pushed down or have your fingers trod on, which will ruin your day really quickly. 

Top image by fstop123 from Getty Images Signature, via Canva.com. Story photos courtesy Caitlin Manner.

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