Experience a Side of Mardi Gras in New Orleans That Seldom See
Stands of ladders painted in purple, green, and gold topped with booster seats line the street. Kids dart back and forth throwing flashing Frisbees and bouncy balls caught during last night’s parade. The savory aroma of grilling boudin drifts from someone’s courtyard and the blare of Jazz trumpets carries down the ancient oak-shaded street.
Not usually the scene that comes to mind when thinking of Mardi Gras down in New Orleans. Sadly, the notoriety of Bourbon Street’s shenanigans overshadows much of what NOLA’s Carnival Season really looks like.
Say you have young children or less-than-mobile grandparents, where do you go to laissez le bon temps roulet yet avoid rowdy crowds? Well, with over 53 parades rolling for a total of 204 hours for over 300 miles, there’s plenty of opportunities.
Carnival or Mardi Gras in Louisiana
Loosely translated as a “farewell to flesh”, the French brought Carnival to Louisiana around 1699. The Season of Carnival celebrates life’s many luxuries before entering into the somber season of Lent.
This joyous season begins on “Twelfth Night”, January 6th, the night of the Epiphany, and ends at midnight on the night of Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. Celebrations differ slightly across the state but all are rooted in Medieval European traditions.
While the revelry of Carnival dates back centuries, the first New Orleans Mardi Gras parade didn’t roll out until 1857. But secret societies or “krewes” were holding “bal masques” and crowning mock royalty long before they were parading through the French Quarter.
Family Friendly Mardi Gras
With parades all over the city and in neighboring parishes, a little research, like picking up a copy of Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras guide (or visiting MardiGrasGuide.com) will help with details like parade routes, times, themes, and whether are not the parades are adult-themed such as the Krewe du Vieux parade. (See bullet points at the bottom of the article)
Plan to stand toward the beginning and middle of the parade route, especially with parades starting in the Uptown area. These areas tend to be where the local residents line up and aren’t near as crowded as Canal Street and the Quarter.
But hey, if standing 15 rows deep in an intoxicated sea of humanity is your thing, get it! You do you. I’ll be over here with all my elbow room and fresh air.
Also by positioning yourself close to the lineup, you can walk among the floats for a closer look before the parade starts and chat up the float riders. This is a great time to take pictures with your favorite costumed revelers.
A Little Lagniappe For You
- Many krewes participate in philanthropic, fund raising efforts, and out reach programs such as those following Hurricane Katrina. Femme Fatale, a 355 all-female krewe, strives “To offer women of all creeds and colors a unique opportunity to promote and support New Orleans’ cultural landscape through participation in the annual Mardi Gras season, while uplifting the community through various endeavors of engagement, awareness and social enhancement in order to further growth.”
- The only time green, purple and gold where replaced as the colors of Carnival was in 2010 when Carnival and The Saints Super Bowl Victory overlapped.
- Bands and marching troupes provide entertainment and diversity as well as inclusiveness in an historically elitist event. Required by city ordinances, parades must include a certain amount of bands and troupes depending on the number of floats slated for the parade. The cost of paying guest bands come in second behind the cost of building and maintaining the floats.
- Many of the high school bands practice for countless hours and will march in up to 8 or more parades per season. On any given day, students spend all day at school, immediately dress out, and line up for the parade. Depending on the parade, some bands march up to 7 miles at a time and won’t return to the band hall until close to midnight. When the parades occur on a weeknight, the students return to school the next morning to do it all over again. So be sure to show those kids some much-needed love!
- Mardi Gras never falls on the same day from year to year even though The Epiphany never changes. That’s because Easter falls on the first Sunday following the full moon after the Spring Equinox (anywhere from March 22 -April 25th). From that date, count back 47 days to Fat Tuesday (anywhere from Feb 3 – March 9). Got it? Yeah me either. Luckily someone else figured it out for us and gave us the dates for the next few years
2020 – Feb 25
2021 – Feb 16
2022 – Mar 1
2023 – Feb 21
2024 – Feb 13
To see something truly spectacular, hang around a few minutes after the last float. The clean-up krewes work their magic and are equally inspiring!
- Comfortable shoes, water, and snacks – with up to 5 parades a day, it’s an all day affair and standing around hungry, dehydrated, and with sore feet is never a bon temp.
- Toilet paper/wet wipes – because Port-a-Potties exist.
- Backpack or reinforced bags – your going to have a LOT of throws and a wimpy grocery bag just won’t do.
- Sunblock, rain poncho, and blanket – because Louisiana has been known to go through all 4 seasons in a single day.
- No glass containers – they are illegal and a hazard. Just don’t.
- Costumes – from homemade to elaborate, you’ll never be over dressed. Give your imagination free reign. Or compile a make shift costume from all your parade throws!
New Orleans Mardi Gras Favorites
- Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club – first African-American krewe, their coconut throws remain the most prized throw in all of Carnival. With more than 100 units (floats, bands, dancing troupes), keep an eye out for their renowned Soulful Warriors such as Witch Doctor, Mayor, Big Shot, Ambassador, and more.
- Krewe of Iris – New Orleans’ oldest female krewe (founded in 1917 and parading since 1959) and now largest of any krewe in the NOLA’s Mardi Gras history. All 3,450 members wear their signature hand-painted masks and long white gloves. This parade consists of almost 90 units including marching bands from all over the nation. The ladies of Iris will let fly fluffy tutus, stuffed king cake babies, gauzy butterfly wings, and hand-decorated sunglasses. Throw me something, sista!
- Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus – this Comic-Con centric marching group exploded into it’s own krewe complete with parade. “The mission of the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus is to save the galaxy by bringing the magical revelry of Mardi Gras to the disenfranchised, socially awkward and generally weird masses who may have never had the opportunity to participate in a Mardi Gras parade organization. Through our works, we hope to elevate all aspects of fandom and celebrate Carnival in our unique way.” Love it, I do.
- Mystic Krewe of Barkus – New Orleans’ only krewe for canines kicks off with a “Pawty in the Park” at Armstrong Park before costumed owners and dogs alike stroll through the French Quarter. Seriously, the happiest parade. Ever.
- Mystic Krewe of the Druids – this 250 all-male krewe holds no queen, court, or balls. Celebrating with traditional satirical night processions, the parade’s theme is never announced before the parade. Nor is the identity of the Arch Druid – their version of a King – ever publicly known. Many of their 18 floats are over 90 years old. The druids will rain down lighted wizard hats, Druid flags, and plush golden acorns among parade attendees.
- Endymion – this super-krewe of over 3100 men boast some of the most spectacular floats found anywhere. Their tandem nine-section float titled Pontchartrain Beach dwarfs all others. Their parade rolls toward the Mercedes-Benz Superdome where it culminates in a parade after-party 20,000 attendees strong.
To plan out your parades and stay up-to-date with roll time click here.
Not sure what to do with your throws after carnival? Donate them!
Sponsored by several krewes, many local charities recycle Mardi Gras beads and throws in an effort to support local charities. To donate your goods reach out to Arc at (504) 837-5140 or arcgno.org, Magnolia School at (504)-733-2874 www.mcs-nola.org, and St. Michael’s Special School at (504)-524-7285 or stmichaelspecialschool.com