Purple, green and gold fleur de lis door wreaths, carnival masks and colorful plastic beads trimmed New Orleans’ homes and fences. The jazzy sounds of high school marching bands practicing for parades filled the streets of local neighborhoods. An eagerness for Mardi Gras had reached the Crescent City, and it was only January.
I quickly learned that Mardi Gras is not simply a festival, but a holiday season filled with its own songs, dances and traditions. In most American cities, a new year quickly follows with the taking down of holiday decorations and a slow drag back to the office. In New Orleans, the changing calendar brings continued excitement: the anticipation of Carnival season.
My original expectation for Mardi Gras included a vision that I undoubtedly shared with many Carnival virgins: streets filled with sardined-packed crowds, beer-guzzling partying and half-naked mayhem. What I discovered, however, is that while these are scenes of Mardi Gras, they do not define Mardi Gras.
When Carnival season finally began in early February, I discovered that a walk down Bourbon Street perfectly illustrates that type of inebriated chaos. With the patchy Mardi Gras cell phone service, few groups make it successfully through the crowds without forming arm-linked trains with friends. One release of a finger could send someone drifting through the deep sea of groping hands, topless women and men accessorized only in beads and tutus. As for me, I was glad to experience Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras, but preferred to stay within the calmer craze of the Uptown neighborhood.
So, that’s where we spent most of our Carnival days – watching the Uptown parades along St. Charles Avenue in the New Orleans Garden District. In a time when alcohol prices skyrocket and bathrooms become both increasingly needed and less available, we stayed near friends’ apartments with direct access to toilets, stocked beer and good company.
Mardi Gras is not a weekend event, but a three-week celebration of king cakes, costumes and jazz interwoven through every genre of local radio. While the first two weekends of Carnival present only a handful of events, Mardi Gras parades, balls and concerts consume its final five days.
My greatest surprises surrounded the parades. Each Mardi Gras Krewe works year-round to develop a theme and create one entire parade. This year, 65 krewes ran parades through New Orleans, many of which presented more than 20 floats and carried hundreds of krewe members and riders.
Over the three weeks of Carnival, I never adjusted to the close proximity in which parade viewers stood to these floats. On several occasions, I watched bass drummers accidentally swing their drumsticks inches from onlookers’ faces. Children charged the floats for any parade throws they could grab, while adults sat on each other’s shoulders waving in plea for a krewe member to toss them plastic beads.
The lucky parade watchers catch additional gems – perhaps a handcrafted shoe from Krewe of Muses, or a hand-painted coconut from Krewe of Zulu. The limited number of these “specialty” throws even led to occasional competition in the crowds. I walked away from the season with a coconut necklace and handmade glass beads, which I considered a success. My favorite parade throw catches included a light-up plastic diamond ring, bottle opener bead necklace and plastic bracelet with gold and silver dangling high heels attached. I wore all these items with pride the remainder of Mardi Gras weekend.
Celebrity appearances included Bret Michaels, Cindy Lauper and Harry Connick, Jr. My favorite, however, was Will Ferrell, the 2012 King of Bacchus. Though his presence alone entertained the crowd, his parade throws included small plastic cowbells spawned from his infamous Saturday Night Live “More Cowbell” skit. He also kept alive the riders’ tendency to whack parade watchers too hard with beads, as one of his throws came in perfect line of my friend’s right eye. A few face scrapes later, it became a good story to tell.
I personally avoided the beads after a while. With being pelted in the head and back on multiple occasions, I opted to watch most parades with a beer in hand and both feet on the ground. This was only true until the marching bands passed, however. Then, I joined in with the spirit of New Orleans and danced.
Now one month later, plastic beads and toilet paper strands still garnish the Oak trees along St. Charles. Many New Orleans locals admit to a still-present hangover from lost sleep, too much beer and overindulging on the seasonal king cakes. Regardless of our reason for recovery, kids and adults alike continue to bond over their Mardi Gras stories and new parade throw collections.
And this is what I discovered Mardi Gras to truly be: a celebration of the people – an unparalleled tribute to culture and life, illustrated by the blend of ages, races and social statuses dancing together in the streets to the sounds of jazz music, free souls and boisterous cheers.