Mardi Gras is synonymous with hedonism and debauchery, and with a motto of Laissez les bons temps rouler (Let the good times roll), it’s no surprise that this is probably the wildest party in the United States. Mardi Gras is more than just beads and boobs, however. New Orleans is home to half-a-dozen cultures and dialects, and this all-inclusive event has something for everyone, from colorful, family-friendly parades and jazz-inspired music to uninhibited parties and time-honored traditions. So don your purple, green and gold—the festival’s official colors representing justice, faith and power—and get ready to give into the spirit of spontaneity.
Mardi Gras – French Beginnings
Carnival is celebrated in numerous places around the world, marking the last period of celebration before the Lenten season begins, when Catholics enter a period of introspection and self-sacrifice.
Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” when one is allowed to cram in as much debauchery as possible before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. French colonists are credited with bringing Mardi Gras to the South in the 1700s, and mystic societies, or krewes, were formed shortly after. The first public parade was held in New Orleans in 1857 by the torch-carrying Mystick Krewe of Comus, the original Louisiana krewe. These secret societies have become the backbone of today’s festival, organizing the massive public parades and exclusive private balls.
The Mardi Gras Indians also got their start in secret societies. During the time of slavery, groups of blacks from inner-city ghettos formed underground tribes. Local Native America tribes were the first to accept blacks who sought freedom, who called themselves Indians out of respect. Post slavery, racism was rampant in the South, and few African Americans felt they could participate freely in Mardi Gras parades. Masksserved not only as a racial veil, but also as a strategic disguise; the chaos of Mardi Gras was an opportune time for the Indians to settle unfinished scores between rival gangs.
Today the violence is long gone, but traditions remain. Two Indian tribes meeting on the street is a ritual of respect and ceremony. When two Big Chiefs of rival tribes come face-to-face, a showdown ensues. One boldly calls “Humba!” which means “bow with respect,” while the other replies, “Me no Humba, you Humba!” While tensions mount, it’s mostly for show; after the standoff, one Chief often whispers to the other, “Looking good, baby!”
Join the Krewe
The entire city shuts down for Mardi Gras, and festivities begin in earnest a week prior, though some parades and events start as early as a month before. The official parade route is actually stunningly regimented. Various krewes or parade congregations represent local municipalities or communities, presenting floats and costumes that keep with their theme. Krewe of Isis, for example, is a group of women with an Egyptian-themed parade. The oldest krewe, Rex, whose origins date back to the Civil War, is so named because it’s the King of the Carnival and features epic regal floats, one of which carries that year’s crowned king. So-called super krewes, such as the Krewe of Bacchus, feature the latest in cutting-edge technology; their animated super float includes a giant, illuminated mechanized crocodile with more than two-dozen riders. While krewes like Rex have an exclusive membership policy, Bacchus is open to the public and thus one of the larger parades at Mardi Gras. No matter which parades you attend, you’re bound to see some amazing outfits and masks (float riders are required to wear them by law).
Beads and More
There’s no bigger Mardi Gras tradition than “throws,” which can whip a crowd into an absolute frenzy. Throws can be beaded necklaces, krewe-imprinted coins, little toys or other curiosities that can be tossed from a float. At some of the parades floats literally rain throws like a giant piñata exploding with toys. Canal Street is one of the go-to spots, with families lining up early along the parade route.
If your idea of Mardi Gras is a bit more adult-oriented, Bourbon Street is your spot. Here, excess is the name of the game, and impossibly tall daiquiris fuel bead-clad revelers, who will bare it all for even more beads. While the city prefers to distance itself from the public drunkenness, nudity, and overt sexuality, these are undeniable aspects of the celebration. That said, carouse and have your drinks, but don’t be a danger to yourself or others. Enjoy the sexual freedom and lack of inhibition, but respect the boundaries of others and keep public displays tasteful. There are all kinds of people at Mardi Gras, including kids, and everyone is entitled to a good time.
While Mardi Gras has come a long way from its French origins and today is a general excuse for a good party, it’s arguably one of the oldest cultural traditions in the U.S., and its multicultural makeup reflects the complex and diverse roots of a city woven of multiple threads.