It is finally time for the main event. We were so fortunate to get a wonderful house sit in the heart of New Orleans for Mardi Gras! Festivities in New Orleans last for about a month, allowing us plenty of chances to catch the parades and enjoy the excitement of the city.
About Mardi Gras
The lead up to Mardi Gras season actually begins closer to Christmas. According to tradition, 12 days after Jesus’s birth on Christmas, the three kings came to visit him bearing gifts. This day is known as Three Kings Day, the 12th Day of Christmas, or Epiphany. This day marks the first day of the Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations. The last day is known as Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (translated into French as Mardi Gras). Traditionally, Christians would feast during this month of celebrations and enjoy the pleasures of food before the lent season began on Ash Wednesday (six weeks before Easter).
When in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, the festivities begin about two weeks before Fat Tuesday, with at least one parade scheduled every day. The parades are coordinated and run by social clubs called Krewes. Parade float riders wear masks (it is actually illegal to take them off!) and throw various items to the crowd. The colors of the holiday (yellow, green, and purple) can be seen everywhere throughout the city.
We joined the rest of the 10 million-plus visitors to New Orleans during the peak time, about five days before Fat Tuesday. The first of the super-krewe parades start on Saturday and Sunday, Lundi Gras celebrations on Monday, and the massive amount of parades and parties on Mardi Gras day.
We attended one of the most famous of New Orlean’s Mardi Gras’ parades run by the Krewe of Endymion. Rolling their first parade in 1967, the Endymion parade is now one of only three super-krewes and is the largest parade in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Each year they have a theme and celebrity participants. This year’s theme was Wonder Tales of Science Fiction. The celebrity participants included Flo-Rida, Lionel Richie, and Chicago.
Like nearly every Mardi Gras parade, the Endymion floats throw beads to the crowd. Over the years, the locals and crowds have grown tired of collecting the cheap plastic beads, so many of the “throws” are now more elaborate. There are limited edition beads, plush toys, glow sticks, and more. The motto of the Krewe of Endymion is “Throw Until It Hurts”. They absolutely lived up to that. Many of the crowd standing around us brought large bags to carry all of their collected throws. I wore all of mine and could hardly carry the weight of them by the end of the night.
Mardi Gras at the French Quarter
We took a trip to the French Quarter for Lundi Gras. Less than half a square mile in area, it is the oldest section of the city. We walked through an excellent hand-made mask market, the French market (which seemed more like a typical American flea market), and explored several quirky shops.
Bourbon Street is located in the heart of the French Quarter and is one of the most infamous streets in the city. Even at 2:00 in the afternoon, the streets were packed with people. Above, there were even more people on decks throwing beads to passerbys. We saw several people flash their breasts in exchange for beads. I was very thankful I did not have to do that during the parade; my arms would have been awfully tired!
The Mardi Gras holiday season ends promptly at midnight on Fat Tuesday. Mounted police march through Bourbon Street and announce the end of Mardi Gras and the beginning of Lent. I was up early on Wednesday to find Twitter packed with comments from tourists complaining they were kicked out of the streets at midnight. These posts were followed up by harsh criticisms from locals reminding the tourists of the local traditions. Out on the streets of New Orleans on Ash Wednesday, people were much more reserved than before.
As an outsider from both the city and the religion, it was interesting to see the transition from the Mardi Gras holiday of gluttony and revelry, to the penitence and solemnity of the Lenten season. It perfectly reflected my impressions of New Orleans. To me, it was a city of honest character. No matter how strange the actions of people seemed at first glance, I got the feeling that each action had purpose and meaning. Further, it seemed a city of people who were living their lives exactly the way they intended to.
In conclusion, I’m so glad we got the opportunity to visit this amazing city, especially during that special time. New Orleans has so much history and character even on an average day. To experience what makes New Orleans unique in the throes of one of the most famous American celebrations was unreal. It was a trip we will never forget.