1. Mardi Gras is all about beads, booze and breasts.
The popular depictions of Mardi Gras evoke a city-wide fraternity party where drunken young women flash their breasts in exchange for trinkets. This transaction does indeed occur near the Bourbon Street strip clubs. But for locals, and visitors who look below the surface and venture deeper into the real New Orleans, the Carnival experience is entirely different — and far removed from the stereotypes that have shaped outsiders’ perception of this holiday.
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.
4. Mardi Gras is a French tradition.
While French Catholic settlers did export the holiday to New Orleans after they brought it to Mobile, Mardi Gras as it is celebrated in the Crescent City is very much rooted in a distinct local culture that melds its African, Native American and European heritage. Throughout the city, the beauty and creativity expressed in costuming, music, performance and other arts during this time is unlike that seen anywhere else in the world. Among the unique local customs are the Skull and Bone Gangs, made up of men dressed as skeletons, who roam downtown in the early morning on Fat Tuesday and were reportedly devised in the 1800s as a way to scare children away from bad behavior. There are also the Baby Dolls — adult women dressed like sexualized Victorian-era dolls, a New Orleans-only tradition said to have started as part of a competition between sex workers during the first years of the 20th century, when prostitution was decriminalized in the Storyville neighborhood.
Traditions such as these continue throughout the year. On almost any Sunday, you can catch a secondline — a traveling street party featuring as many as three brass bands and up to several thousand people — roving through the back streets of the city.
5. Mardi Gras is racist.
The intersection of race and Mardi Gras is complicated. On the one hand, many of the older “krewes,” the organizations that put on the major parades, were all-white until the city passed a law that forced integration of the parading Krewes in 1992 — and there was passionate opposition to the change.
While some New Orleans institutions are stained with a history of discrimination, Mardi Gras as we celebrate it today has also been shaped by resistance to racism. The legacy of New Orleans includes the largest slave uprising in U.S. history, which took place in 1811 just outside New Orleans, and the civil disobedience of Homer Plessy, who challenged “separate but equal” laws in 1892. Because French and Spanish colonial laws around slavery differed from the English laws governing most U.S. colonies, New Orleans had a community of free Africans as early as the 1730s. Much of New Orleans’s distinct music, food and even architecture descends from the culture shaped by these free Africans.
This history is deeply ingrained in Mardi Gras celebrations. One of the main events on Fat Tuesday is the Zulu parade, a historically black Krewe that was started over a century ago by African Americans to mock the all-white Carnival traditions. Zulu has grown from an informal celebration to a major institution, featuring dozens of floats and lasting for hours.
Among the most exciting and eagerly anticipated rituals of New Orleans Carnival are those performed by the Mardi Gras Indians. The so-called Indians are actually black men (and some women) who pay cultural tribute to Native Americans for the support that tribal communities gave to Africans escaping slavery. The Indian gangs, as they are called, wear intricate costumes and perform mock battles among themselves featuring song, dance and live music. For these men, who work all year on their characters and their suits, the highest compliment is to call them the prettiest — one of many ways the holiday also subverts traditional gender roles. Customs such as these, which commemorate opposition to slavery, root the holiday in the city’s history of struggle against discrimination while also creating a space where divisions of race and gender blur — and people find commonality in celebration.
Jordan Flaherty is a New Orleans-based journalist and the author of “Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six.”
The calendar may say that Mardi Gras arrives Tuesday, but in New Orleans, celebrations related to the holiday have been consuming the city for weeks. In the rest of the country, mentioning Mardi Gras often brings a shrug or a smirk: Isn’t that just a spring break beerfest for college kids? Let’s undress Mardi Gras and explain why it’s a much richer holiday than commonly mischaracterized. Yes, New Orleans Carnival is a time of excess. But it is an excess of generosity, creativity and culture — as well as pleasure.