It’s Mardi Gras! A time for celebration, merriment, and Big Ass Beers. Many tourists will flock to New Orleans for these reasons but locals will tell you that Mardi Gras means more than just beads and loose inhibitions. I’ve put together a list of things not typically known about the holiday in order to share the traditions of one of my favorite cities. Enjoy the read and as they say in the Big Easy: laissez les bons temp rouler (“let the good times roll”)!
1. Mardi Gras Isn’t Just a Day – It’s a Whole Season!
Most people think of Mardi Gras as a single day of revelry and fun. But in fact, the celebration in New Orleans lasts for a much longer time! Beginning on the Christian holiday of Epiphany, the Mardi Gras season (or “Carnival”) lasts for several weeks of parades, parties, costumes, music, and more, officially ending the day before Ash Wednesday.
Carnival also includes Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras (Lundi literally translates to “Monday”). This is traditionally spent staying up all night celebrating and waiting for the official arrival of Mardi Gras at sunrise the next day. It makes it a lot easier to head out to the early morning parades since you’re already up and partying anyway!
2. You Don’t Really Need To Show Your Boobs (No, Seriously).
Don’t lie – when you think of Mardi Gras, you think of a woman flashing their boobs in exchange for a plastic strand of beads, right? That used to be my impression, too. Supposedly started in the 1970s as a rebellious act against social norms, the transaction of boobs for beads has continued into the present day due to a mix of alcohol and Girls Gone Wild. Thankfully, the “tradition” of bearing all is only reserved for certain areas of the French Quarter. Try it anywhere else and you’re likely to be asked to leave.
But then how do you get any beads if you don’t flash someone?
Simple – go to the parades!
Mardi Gras parades are know for throwing beads and other goodies to anyone capable of catching them in the crowd. On my first night celebrating Mardi Gras in 2012, I went back to my friend Jessie’s house weighted down by the loads of beads that were thrown at us from float riders – and no boobies had been shown in the process!
Look, I’m all about “you do you” and if you really want to take your shirt off because some guy yells, “Show me your tits!” from a balcony, then by all means. But just know that you don’t have to do it in order to get some Mardi Gras bling.
3. Throw Me Something, Mister!
Plastic beads are fun and all, but did you know that you can go home with a variety of unique Mardi Gras souvenirs? From toys to handbags, the “throws” from parade floats often depend on the club or “Krewe” that has organized the parade.
For example, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is known for their very popular and valuable coconuts (yes, coconuts!). The all-female Krewe of Muses has their fabulously decorated high heels. The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus usually has nerdy and punny things for the crowd. There’s also the Krewe du Vieux, which recently had their parade and threw funny, sexy items such as condoms, tiny paddles, and stickers with dirty phrases.
In my own collection, I have throws which include personalized Krewe beads, coins (also know as dubloons), plastic cups, light up figurines, a rubber chicken, and a pink garter. I even have some beads thrown by comedian Will Ferrell when he was King of Bacchus in the Krewe of Bacchus Parade!
Sometimes there are controversial throws. This year, as a result of the recent removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, some beads are in circulation featuring the slogan “Forever Lee Circle” printed underneath an etching of the statue. While those who are for the beads argue that Lee is purely an image of Southern history, a majority of locals find them to be extremely offensive. Many Krewes have banned their members from throwing the beads during parades. There’s also a movement to publicly call out any parade riders who do throw the Lee beads (#hoodsoff) and a fundraiser for Take ‘Em Down NOLA, a grassroots organization that aims to remove all monuments dedicated to white supremacy in New Orleans.
4. Mardi Gras is a Children’s Holiday.
Yes, you read that right! Mardi Gras is considered a children’s holiday! I was surprised to learn about this, too. I always thought of Mardi Gras to be like a giant “adults only” party. However, locals will tell you that outside Bourbon Street, the holiday is all about the kids. Hundreds of families will camp out on the sidewalks to watch the parades together. Children will be seen dressed in costumes just like on Halloween, pulled by their parents in decorated Red Flyer wagons.
One of my favorite Mardi Gras traditions is the Mardi Gras ladder, which is literally a 6 foot standard ladder bolted with a seat at the top. They’re used to provide children with the best seat in town while they watch the parades. Float riders tend to aim their throws to the kids in the crowd over any adults, and the ladders make this feat a lot easier.
5. Be Prepared For a Religious Experience.
You may be surprised to learn that the holiday is itself religious! Tracing its roots back to Medieval celebrations in Europe, Mardi Gras started as a way for good Christians to prepare themselves for a period of Lenten fasting by eating, drinking, and making merry. What better way to get it all out of your system, right? The holiday and other Roman Catholic traditions were brought to the United States as a result of 18th century French and later Spanish colonization of areas which included New Orleans.
Today Mardi Gras is celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike, not only in New Orleans but all around the world. Most notably the holiday can be found in places like Rio de Janeiro and Venice.
6. Mardi Gras Has Its Own Colors.
You can literally find all the colors of the rainbow during Mardi Gras, but you’re bound to see three particular colors the most: purple, gold, and green. These colors are found in decorations, shirts, beads, and even food. Why? Because these are the traditional colors of Mardi Gras, each representing a specific cultural value of the city.
Purple represents justice. Gold is more obvious – it’s the color of wealth. And green represents faith, a very important theme for a holiday and city rooted in religion.
The colors also honor the Three Wise Men who visited Jesus on Epiphany, which is the official start of the Mardi Gras season.
7. Big Chief, You’re So Pretty!
One of the most unique and lesser known parts of Mardi Gras is the Mardi Gras Indians. The Mardi Gras Indians are made up of organizations (or “tribes”) featuring members of the African-American communities of New Orleans, mostly from the inner city areas. They are recognized by their beautifully hand-crafted suits, often made with an abundance of colorful feathers and bead work woven into scenes of history and lore. It is believed that the Mardi Gras Indians are descendants of escaped slaves who sought refuge with the neighboring Native Americans. These escaped slaves lived with the tribes and adapted to their traditions, eventually passing these traditions on to the next generations.
Every Mardi Gras, the Mardi Gras Indians put on their suits and parade through their local neighborhoods. They dance and chant while following their tribe leader known as the “Big Chief”. Occasionally tribes will meet each other in the streets, where they will engage in friendly battles of dance and ritual. For those lucky enough to find the Mardi Gras Indians (their routes are usually kept secret until the last minute), it’s truly a sight to behold.
8. You Might Choke on a Plastic Baby.
When I think about traditional Mardi Gras food, one thing comes to mind: King Cake.
King Cake is a round, braided pastry that tastes a lot like a cinnamon roll. It’s topped with icing or sugar (sometimes both), usually in the traditional Mardi Gras colors. I’ve never had a piece of King Cake that I didn’t like, including the one I baked myself (I am still proud that it came out so well)!
King Cakes are also traditionally served with a surprise baked inside: a small, plastic figurine of a baby. It’s supposed to symbolize baby Jesus (remember, Mardi Gras is a religious holiday) and the person who finds it is expected to buy the next King Cake. While I couldn’t actually find any accounts of people choking on the tiny figure, considered yourself warned. Although death by cake wouldn’t be a super awful way to go…
Ready to celebrate Mardi Gras? Share in the comments below – I’d love to read your thoughts!