A lot of people have a pre-conceived notion of what Mardi Gras is all about. What comes to mind for them is the rowdiness and the debauchery. And yes that does happen but it mostly happens in the French Quarter, and you know, it’s not really that bad. When it really gets rowdy is in the evening.
I had not been down to the Quarter during Mardi Gras for years, in fact I was probably a college student the last time I went, so maybe I had forgotten what it was like. As I recall, the rowdiest time seemed to be the weekend before Mardi Gras day. The Saturday night was pretty wild, but then there were still parades with big floats that went through the Quarter which, because it started to get too crowded and dangerous, the city fathers decided to curtail that activity. Probably a good thing too.
I remember I was watching a parade on Bourbon Street and after the thing filed past everyone started going in different directions. It was the kind of thing where you had no control of where you were going, you were just moving along with the crowd shoulder to shoulder. I tripped and started to go down and if it were not for my buddy who grabbed me by the belt and pulled me up I would have been trampled.
Anyway, a few years ago we decided to go to the Quarter on Mardi Gras day. We got down there at about 8 AM, had no problem finding a place to park and made our way to Bourbon Street. It was surprisingly pretty tame and we saw some great, creative costumes. Later on in the afternoon after the Rex parade had passed our uptown spot, we went back down to the Quarter, parked in the exactly the spot we’d had that morning.
Wandering around in Jackson Square we found a whole crew of pirates with a little boat on wheels that contained a makeshift canon made out of PVC pipe that they used to fire loads of beads at waiting revelers on the third floor balcony of the Pontalba Building. Then, we made it to Bourbon Street and although there were more people than in the morning, it didn’t seem particularly debauched or too rowdy, we just saw more neat costumes and a good deal of people having a good time. We even saw families with little kids all dressed up in costume. I know Bourbon Street gets pretty wild Mardi Gras night but I really have no desire to go down there then.
After we walked Bourbon Street we made it over to this neat little bar, The Pirate’s Alley Pub, that’s on the corner of the William Faulkner house right there on Pirate’s Alley next to the St. Louis Cathedral. They make the best Bloody Marys around, so we just got one and sat and watched as people walked by in pretty amazing costumes. Did we see people weaving down the street drunk out of their minds? No. Not once.
Here’s the thing: if you don’t like crowds you ain’t gonna like Mardi Gras. New Orleans is a “crowd culture” (I just made that up) and we are used to and like crowds. We got crowds at Mardi Gras, the Jazz Fest and all of the other festivals we have going on in this city throughout the year. We like people and like being around a lot of them. It’s fun and it’s celebratory, and we as a culture and people just like to do that every chance we get.
Can you bring your kids to Mardi Gras? Yep, you sure can in fact if you go along the uptown parade route on St. Charles Avenue, a route that stretches from Napoleon Avenue all the way to Canal Street, you’ll see lots of kids on ladders and running around catching “throws” that are tossed to the adoring crowds by the Carnival krewe members as the floats roll by.
So Mardi Gras really has something for everyone. It’s called the greatest free show on earth. It has ancient origins as pagan festival believed to have begun in Roman times, in celebration of the coming of springtime, a time when people cast off their inhibitions and were allowed to do almost anything. The idea of the mask is to cover your identity so whatever kind of wildness you did, drinking, sex or otherwise, people would not know it was you.
The Catholic Church tried to wipe it out because it was so heathen. But it had become so engrained in the culture they just co-opted it and changed it into a religious celebration where folks could let it all hang out and go wild the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the 40 days of Lent that ends Easter Sunday.
Since the beginnings of New Orleans in the early 1700s, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, in some form or other, was celebrated. At one point in the 1800s it got so out of hand that there was a movement to stop it all together, but it was an attraction for tourists that brought in money and free publicity for the city. So it was decided that if it were more organized perhaps the city could have more control over it. Some private citizens formed a group, now known as a Krewe, and put on a parade. That parade and Krewe was called Rex and are still in existence today and Rex is the main parade for Fat Tuesday.
All the parades are put on by private Krewes who pay for the entire expense of it. There are dozens of Carnival krewes with only a handful that actually parade. The rest only have balls with a king, queen and a court, and a presentation of the city’s debutantes. In fact, much of the social scene in this city revolves around Carnival.
Mardi Gras is the biggest celebration that New Orleans can boast and people come from all over the world to participate. It’s a time of fun, renewal, recreation and family and friends’ get togethers. Everyone is invited and all are welcome.