Mardi Gras 2013: What Visitors Don't Understand About the Celebration

“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” is a question made famous by one of the city’s most famous spawns, Louis Armstrong. As a former resident of the city, there is no time I miss the city more than today on Mardi Gras.

There is nothing quite like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. When I first moved to the city, I was a little taken aback by the sheer love of the holiday among the city’s residents. As I settled into a new job teaching, my native New Orleanian colleagues would come up to me and ask with a twinkle in their eyes and in that drawl particular to the city, “Is this going to be your first Mahhdi Gras?”

I didn’t really understand the fascination with Mardi Gras at first. At the time, Mardi Gras was largely what I perceived of it from the popular media: a day of debauchery surrounding beads, boobs, and booze. Fun for young men, but for anyone else? I didn't know. But throughout my years in New Orleans, I learned that Mardi Gras is so much more than that.

To truly comprehend the greatness of Mardi Gras, you must understand it as New Orleanians do. The images you might see on TV of debauchery in the French Quarter are largely tourists that bring a certain pre-ordained understanding of the celebration to the city and act accordingly. Mardi Gras is the culmination of Carnival — or as locals call it “Mardi Gras season” — a month or more of parades, parties, and traditions that begin on the Twelfth Night after Christmas. 

During this time, people of all ages and walks of life take part in celebrations peppering the city. Beads are certainly a part of the revelries as the throw of choice from the floats in the parades down most of New Orleans’s city streets, but vice is optional. The whole season is very much so viewed as a family friendly affair with King cake and red beans and rice as much a part of the season as alcohol. In the last few days of Mardi Gras season, parades and celebrations ramp up, with the biggest parades happening in the days just before and on Fat Tuesday. For this reason, contrary to popular belief, Mardi Gras is for many New Orleanians - exhausted from the previous weeks’ constant parades, balls, and excitement – a day of rest.

Beyond particulars, what makes Mardi Gras in New Orleans a truly exceptional experience is the city and its residents. Few other cities can generate the genuine “joie de vivre” New Orleans does on a constant basis; and at no time is this spirit more tangible than Mardi Gras season. From high school students that practice all year long so they can entertain thousands in bands and dance troops down 5-mile long parades to workers that put in countless of hours making the intricate floats to average residents that shows up to parade routes hours in advance to claim the perfect spot, New Orleanians adore Mardi Gras. And like most passions, it is infectious. Experience one Mardi Gras as a resident of the city and the magic spell of the season and the community will enchant you.

More than just the sheer love and devotion of the city and its residents to the holiday though, Mardi Gras is an amazing experience in New Orleans because it makes so evident the resilience of the city. This was especially true months after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina when New Orleans refused to halt their beloved Mardi Gras.

The celebrations went on despite the fact that many of the city’s hotels remained unopened and some of the floats had significant flood damage. Aside from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has never been an easy place to live, despite its moniker as the “Big Easy.” The city has long been plagued with crime and has a plethora of problems persisting from poverty. The beauty of Mardi Gras season is that residents realize the importance of setting aside their troubles and reveling in the beauty of life and the talents of their community.

Many other cities throughout the world host Carnival celebrations, some larger and more grandiose; but to me, none will ever compare to that of New Orleans. So if you ever get the chance, experience Mardi Gras as the locals do in New Orleans.  I promise it will not disappoint.