Parades are a big part of Mardi Gras, but they are family affairs. Along the uptown parade routes, anyone seeking to remove their clothes is likely to be stopped by angry parents out with their young children. Yes, there are beads tossed (we locals call them “throws”), and the riders on parade floats launch them with abandon. But beyond beads, there is a wide range of treasures — from fancy decorated shoes (made by the all-female group that puts on the Muses parade) and painted coconuts (designed by members of the Zulu parade) to cups, toys, stuffed animals and much more. The best items are usually thrown to children — and you don’t need to show any skin to get them.
The big parades offer plentiful throws and carefully decorated floats with celebrity guests (Will Ferrell, in the Bacchus parade, is among this year’s big names). But the real stars of the parades are the marching bands. In New Orleans high schools, playing in band makes you one of the coolest kids in class. Seeing our school marching bands perform during Mardi Gras — something they train for all year — is a thrill.
2. Mardi Gras is just one day.
Yes, Fat Tuesday commemorates a day of excess before the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. But Mardi Gras is a marathon, not a sprint. It starts with Twelfth Night (Jan. 6, also known as Epiphany, a Christian holiday commemorating the wise men’s visit to newborn Jesus) and continues for several weeks, officially ending at midnight Ash Wednesday. For New Orleanians, there are parties, masquerades, parades and other festivities from Jan. 6 onward, and there are always new rituals being born. Among the additions from the past few years: the Joan of Arc Parade, a cross between a Renaissance Faire and a French Quarter bar crawl that takes place every Jan. 6; and ’tit Rex (short for “Petit Rex” and pronounced “T-Rex”), a miniature parade that rolls two Saturdays before Mardi Gras and is made up of intricate, shoebox-size handmade floats.
For locals, Mardi Gras season is also a time of parties and formal balls, some of them quite exclusive and others more open and diverse. Every community in New Orleans society has its own traditions. There are gay and straight, black and white, wealthy and poor, anarchist and drag-queen celebrations.
3. In the United States, Mardi Gras happens only in New Orleans.
The first Mardi Gras celebration on this continent was actually in Mobile, Ala., in 1703, and that city still hosts a season of parades and balls. But for a real off-the-beaten-path Mardi Gras, visit the Cajun communities of southwest Louisiana. Small towns such as Eunice and Tee Mamou still incorporate practices that are said to date to the Middle Ages or are even pre-Christian pagan rites. Customs include wearing handmade patchwork costumes, begging door-to-door for ingredients for gumbo to be cooked and shared that evening, live music and dancing, and — in at least two small rural areas, such as Gheens and Choupic — a town-wide chase that ends in public floggings.