It's the most wonderful time of the year. Now that the hot cocoa, candy cane, and gift-giving holidays are out of the way, it's time for the real celebration. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Yep, that's right, it's time to decorate the Uptown trees with beads and fill the streets with elaborate, larger-than-life floats. There is without a doubt no other holiday like Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Unfortunately, sometimes the holiday gets a reputation for its excess of beads, booze, and boobs. While many may come specifically for those three things, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is way more than that. Not only are there mearnings very religious and historic behind the holiday, there are also loads of personal family traditions that surround it.
When outsiders think of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, they think about the unlimited access to racy and raunchy debauchery. They think of what's been portrayed on Girls Gone Wild and movies, and only associate it with famous streets like Bourbon Street.
But things are usually very different for the locals. Yes, it's still one big party, but it is also one big family affair. From its costumes, to its debutante balls, to the families that collaborate on truck floats, there is more to Mardi Gras than beads, booze, and boobs…
Carnival Season Begins
I get an immense amount of joy when I tell people that my first Mardi Gras was in my mother's stomach. While I have zero proof of this, what I do know for sure is that I have celebrated Mardi Gras with my family for as long as I can remember.
For many of those years, the events that take place on Fat Tuesday have always been a big to-do. But, Carnival season actually starts way before the day of Mardi Gras. Depending on Easter, we could have either a long Carnival season or a short one. Either way, we have a way of making it one of the best times of the year.
The official start of Carnival is on January 6, or "Kings Day." This is the day when many locals change their Christmas trees into Mardi Gras trees. It is the day to bring out that giant purple, green, and gold wreath. Most importantly, it's the day when it is officially appropriate to indulge in a local delicacy we like to call king cake. (Yes, we definitely judge those who eat it outside of the designated season.)
From there, we parade until Fat Tuesday.
Fat Tuesday With the Family
On the eve of Mardi Gras, which is properly called Lundi Gras, the boys in my family are sent on a mission to find the best neutral ground spot on St. Charles Avenue. Not too close to the bridge, but close enough to catch Zulu, 'cause we love coconuts. Toting an overnight bag and a tent to sleep in, they set up shop, and only they know where the night will take them.
At about 4 a.m. the next day, the rest of the family begins to wake up. Two people are responsible for driving Uptown to park a pickup truck with a portable toilet resting on the bed of it. Now we can check restroom off the list.
Whoever stays at the house is usually responsible for preparing the food. This can include anything from mini po-boy sandwiches to hot dogs, along with meat for the grill and, depending on the season, crawfish for the boiling pot.
At about 6:30 or 7 a.m., the bulk of the family begins to trickle on over to the spot on the "neutral ground side." If you're lucky, you'll find a good parking spot, but with all of the other camping families and Zulu enthusiasts, many of the good ones are already taken.
It's 8 a.m., and Zulu is getting ready to roll. An uncle will come just in time with two ladders for the kids. There's some new law about the placement of ladders, but we've already popped open our first few beers, so just give us the fine, because we kind of forgot what the rules are.
Zulu is rolling, slowly as usual, but who cares? The tent next to us always has a DJ, and the streets turn into one big block party in between floats. On this one day, we are all family enjoying each other's company.
Somewhere between 10 and 11 a.m., Rex is strolling on by. This is when the stragglers slide through. They didn't camp, didn't prepare any food, and obviously they didn't wake up early. But that's okay, it is Mardi Gras after all!
Later that day are the everlasting truck floats. I mean seriously, when do they end? This is the time of the day that the kids love, because they get the most junk that they have received throughout the whole Carnival season. It's also about the time when many of us Mardi Gras soldiers tap out.
Yup, it's almost 5 p.m., and it's time for bed.
If you're a real trooper, maybe you'll find an after-party at some bar or hit a balcony for the final hours on Bourbon Street.
Whether you do or you don't, one thing's for sure: you enjoyed a Mardi Gras that was friendly for the whole family—a tradition that you will continue for the years to come, with memories that children like me will grow up to always appreciate. And that's the real Mardi Gras—NOLA-style!