The air becomes thick with anticipation, the city swells with excitement, and a dusting of multi-colored beads trims the trees lining St. Charles–the time is Carnival. Steeped with tradition, history, and folklore, there is truly no celebration in the country quite like Mardis Gras.
In the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, a sea of parades with dancers, marching bands and artfully decorated floats can be witnessed everywhere from Uptown to the French Quarter. Locals congregate with friends and neighbors, setting up camp along the routes complete with grills, folding chairs, snacks and a few cold beers. You’ll even find some decorated painter’s ladders for parents to prop little ones on so that they can easily see the action and catch a few throws. Newbies race to collect their first catches from the floats, gripping their plastic beads like gold.
Each parade has a theme chosen by it’s “krewe” with specific trinket throws to match. Most of them being created out of some sort of social club, they all have their own history and purpose. For instance, the all-women krewe, Muses, is known for tossing elaborately decorated shoes, while Zulu is infamous for their painted coconuts. One of our favorites was the Krewe of Tucks who had a potty humor theme, complete with plunger throws and punny float names.
These parades become their own living, breathing things for the time that they run. The infrastructure that the city puts around these beautiful monstrosities is quite amazing – from the massive road closures to the unbelievable cleanup crew at the tail of each parade. The daily saga starts with opening up your favorite ‘parade tracker’ app. Yes you heard that right, parade tracker app! These apps, created by local TV stations list out all the parades that happen each day and have a tracker car that leads it. This way you know when to get to your favorite spot and also what streets might be closed that day. Each day has multiple parades happening in different parts of the city. Don’t expect to get anywhere on time during these marches. Mardi Gras month in New Orleans is like August in Europe – nobody expects anything to get done, and if you’re in a rush, too bad!
In addition to swarms of huge parade floats throwing beads, toys, and other trinkets, there are the street bands playing songs like what you’ll hear in our Mixtape #1 – NOLA, marching bands from local colleges and high schools, and other local groups like dance troupes, celebrities, and even various first responders or armed forces all clad on horseback. The marching bands that you see here range from some of the best in the nation with precise choreography all the way down to the local middle school. And I must say, some the middle school bands are far more talented than some of the high schools.
The parades happen both day and night. The day parades are traditionally fun in their own right, but it’s at night where the real impressive shows of flair go down. Now keep in mind, these floats, each being pulled by a huge farm tractor are the size of 1-2 18-wheeler trailers, often doubled up! Krewes like Endymion and Orpheus are known for having amazing floats plastered top to bottom with LEDs and pyrotechnics, and also featuring celebrities such as KISS and Harry Conick Jr. You’ll sometimes hear folks negatively refer to these parades as the rich crowd, going against the DIY nature of some of the other parades, but they have a place there nonetheless. Many of these parades end with a fancy exclusive gala.
If you ask any local, the typical breakfast or lunch fare for Mardi Gras consists of “King Cake” and beer. King cake is an essential component of the celebration of Mardis Gras and there is a feeding frenzy around town for it the the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. There are a few local bakeries that claim to have “the best” king cake, but expect to wait in long lines or even be turned away if you wait too long. The cake is a circular sweet doughy concoction twisted into a crown-like shape, covered in multicolored frosting. Almost every king cake has a small trinket buried inside–usually a small, plastic baby. If you get the piece with the baby inside that means it’s your turn to buy the king cake for next year’s Mardis Gras celebration.
Like all traditions with Mardi Gras, the King Cake has its own rich history going all the way back to France in 1870 along with its own local twists. Do the colors mean something? Does a king cake filled with cream cheese or strawberries break from tradition? Well, the bakery down the street says that filled cakes are the traditional way! These are the arguments you hear around town and in line waiting for yours. After deciding not to get a cake from one of his estranged relatives who also started bakeries, we attempted to get one of Manny Randazzo’s famous king cakes – the mostly undisputed best cake – but they were sold out by time we got there. Luckily there was another bakery down the road Antoine’s, who according to the folks in line, also had the best cake in town! What luck!
The big event starts weekend before Fat Tuesday. You’ll start to spot celebrities atop floats and notice much thicker crowds. While dressing up is not required it becomes more common to see locals and tourists taking Mardis Gras day as an opportunity to truly express themselves with wacky wares. There are a few great thrift and costume shops around town to snag a wig, psychedelic shirt, tutu and maybe even a little sparkle. Some people even choose to dress up during all of carnival, but you’ll see the most outlandish outfits on Fat Tuesday.
All around town during that final weekend leading up to the big day, everything is a buzz. Friendly passersby will ask you “Did you make it to the parade this morning?” “Did you catch Endymion?!” You see most people wearing left-over beads that they caught that day. It’s perfectly acceptable to wear your beads all day every day!
And finally the day comes. Fat Tuesday! The day begins with getting up at an ungodly hour to secure your seats for the final parades that morning – Krewe of Rex, and Krewe of Zulu. Zulu is the most anticipated and coveted parade of the festival, although I think we may have been more impressed with the floats and throws of Rex, which translates as “King” in Latin. Rex reigns as the King of the Carnival.
If you didn’t get up at an ungodly hour to catch a parade, that probably means you camped out overnight to get your favorite spot! It’s not uncommon for locals to camp out at the same spot with the same party crew every year for the parades. We had a little too much fun the night before, but we were still able to pull ourselves out of bed and get a prime spot on St. Charles by 8AM or so. And so in true NOLA fashion, stocked with king cake, beer, snacks, and chairs that we would inevitably leave behind in an attempt to drink all day without luggage, we were in the thick of it! Sharing drinks with our neighbors, trying to catch a zulu coconut, and dancing to the music.
After, or instead of the parades, there are parties all across town. Whether it be in a small neighborhood, or the french quarter, you’ll find drunk friendly people celebrating. You’ll see impromptu second lines, drum circles, naked people, and maybe even a coveted Mardi Gras Indian Tribe. Just like everything else Mardi Gras related, the Mardi Gras Indians stem from a rich history of friendship between the African slaves of Louisiana and the local Native Americans dating back to the 1740s. Each year NOLA Mardi Gras Indian Tribes will go “Masking” throughout the city in elaborate hand-made costumes resembling that of a Native American chief.
The whole event is quite a show in stamina and excess from all parties – the city, the local businesses, and the participants. It’s pretty amazing to see what a science they have the whole thing down to. One moment you’ll have a parade of hundreds of floats with passengers littering the streets with thousands of beads and small toys, and the next moment you have a brigade of city workers armed with leaf blowers, power washers, street sweepers and dump trucks to wash it all away as if it were never there. It’s actually quite surprising to see how easy they make it look to make a street look brand new.
And finally it all comes to an abrupt end. In a city known for its debauchery and it’s always-open bars, when the clock strikes midnight it all shuts down. For once, the everything actually closes down at midnight and the bars do something they don’t often do – have a last call. And to mark the end of Mardi Gras, the beginning of Lent, and the beginning of prep-time for next year’s festival, the “Krewe of Blue” shows up and makes their presence known. With officers on foot, officers on horseback, and officers in cruisers blearing their sirens, and flashing their lights just as if they were part of any other Mardi Gras Parade. Don’t expect any beads from these guys.