The Top 10 Mardi Gras Misconceptions
Some things you’ve heard about Mardi Gras are probably true: There is a lot of alcohol during Mardi Gras (over $3 million worth). Mardi Gras is a big money-maker (at least a half billion dollars annually). Mardi Gras is the biggest party New Orleans ever throws (about a million people celebrate here every year). But, that said, there are also plenty of things that some people believe about our favorite holiday that are wrong. Old wives’ tales. A bunch of hooey. The following is a list of the top ten misconceptions about Mardi Gras.
1. You have to show your boobies during Mardi Gras
While this is always an option if you’re into public nudity, it really isn’t necessary. Many people think of Mardi Gras as being a sleazy holiday, and in some ways it is. But it hasn’t always been this way. Historically, Mardi Gras used to be a family event for the young and old to enjoy together. If you look beyond the confines of the Quarter, you can still usually find people bringing their children to parades, cooking out, attending family gatherings, and other wholesome occupations. So if you’re trying to score some extra fine beads by showing off your girls, this might work on Bourbon Street. But to win the best throws from the float riders at a parade, skip the flashing and try bribing them with a shot instead.
2. Mardi Gras only happens in the French Quarter
If you’re looking for drunken tourists dropping beads off of Bourbon Street balconies, then the French Quarter might be just the place for you during Carnival. But there’s certainly much more to it than that, and Mardi Gras definitely extends beyond the 13-block width of the Vieux Carre. Way beyond, even: to Uptown, Metairie, throughout Louisiana and as far away as Mobile, Alabama (more on that below). Another common misconception among non-locals is that there are actually parades on Bourbon Street. Not so. Most parades aren’t allowed anywhere in the Quarter at all. So if you’re waiting around among the debauchery and vomit for a parade to come down Bourbon Street, you better change your location. And put your shirt back on while you’re at it.
3. Mardi Gras is only on Fat Tuesday
Sure, Mardi Gras itself falls on a single Tuesday, but the Carnival season is actually several weeks leading up to and including the big day. It all has to do with the Epiphany following the 12 days of Christmas, along with the spring equinox, and Easter (which is why the date of Mardi Gras changes every year). One thing that remains constant, however, is Twelfth Night. It always falls on January 6, and it officially kicks off the Carnival season. Then, approximately two weeks before Fat Tuesday, things really kick into Mardi Gras high gear with one of the first major parades, which is Krewe du Vieux. The rest of the parades and related festivities follow up until the last hurrah on Mardi Gras Day. So though only this one day is the official, bank-closing, real deal holiday, we’ll be attending balls and parades, dressing up, hoarding beads, drinking excessively, and eating king cake for many weeks prior.
4. Mardi Gras is a New Orleans original
Though more people celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans than anywhere else in the world, and very few can think about New Orleans without Mardi Gras coming to mind as well… we actually can’t claim to be the originators of the holiday. That honor goes to the fine citizens of Mobile, Alabama. As early as 1703, they feasted and reveled their way through their first Mardi Gras celebration, thanks to the festive nature and planning of Frenchman Nicholas Langlois. That means Mobile has at least 15 Mardi Gras’s on us, since New Orleans wasn’t even founded until 1718. Mobile has lots in common with New Orleans, including almost all of the same Mardi Gras traditions that we do here in Louisiana—the secret societies/krewes, the balls, masks, throws, parties, king cake, drunken tendencies… Heck, they even share the same street names as New Orleans. But despite Mobile’s slightly longer history and even extended Carnival season (theirs starts as early as November), New Orleans has long since overshadowed its Alabama neighbor as the Mardi Gras capital of the world. Sorry, Mobilians.
5. You have to be drunk by noon on Fat Tuesday
Not only is this not recommended, it is frankly a lousy idea. Mardi Gras is a marathon, not a sprint, and unless you want to be passed out by Mile 2, you better pace yourself. Sip, don’t shoot. The last thing you want is to be sleeping it off at home by the time the Rex parade steps off. There’s a lot to do throughout a very long and festive day, and you don’t want to miss it because you drank too much before you even got going. Know your limits and drink accordingly.
6. It’s easy to join a krewe
If you’re tempted to be a part of the action by riding on a float in a parade or joining a krewe, great. But first realize what all is involved. It’s not necessarily something you can just sign up for. You don’t get to simply put on a costume and show up at a parade, and expect to be welcomed onto a float. There are expenses and fees—annual dues to be paid and throws to be bought, which can run in the thousands of dollars. There are strict initiation processes to join a krewe, some of which are highly selective, and sometimes you get stuck on a waiting list for years. Not to mention some of the krewes have some pretty unusual rules, so just know what you’re getting into before you decide which krewe is the best fit for you. (For instance, you can get kicked out of some krewes for smoking, drinking too much, or taking off your mask during a parade). So think long and hard if you have the determination, qualifications, patience and money to join a krewe. You might have better luck being accepted to Harvard.
7. You really need all those throws
It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of getting free stuff. We all do it. You’ll take a donut from the conference room just because it’s offered to you, and there are people who go as far as running a marathon just for the free t-shirt and goodie bag. But ask yourself… do you really need yet another Krewe of Endymion frisbee or a fifth pack of Muses nail files? You’ve only got ten fingers, after all. And what are you going to do with those 14 pounds of beads? How many random plastic cups can you really use? To avoid getting greedy, you can try a couple different techniques. One option is to practice Catch and Release. You can collect whatever you can get, so you still get to feel successful and prosperous, but then give your stash to the less fortunate (like the poor kid next to you at the parade who is too short to catch anything, or your buddy stuck at home who never made it to the parade at all). Or, live by a Reasonable Buffet Mentality. Fill a bag with a little sampling of every parade throw that appeals to you, without overdoing any one item. Like the all-you-can-eat crab legs and prime rib, leave some of the good stuff for the rest of us to catch.
8. Finding the baby in the king cake is a good thing
Because only one “lucky” individual is going to get the piece of king cake with the baby hidden inside, it can make you feel like a rockstar if that “special” someone happens to be you. But don’t get too excited. Besides risking breaking a tooth, choking, or poking yourself painfully in the mouth with that little baby-shaped chunk of plastic, you are now strapped with the unfortunate duty of buying the next king cake, and possibly even hosting a future cake party. Of course, if you can avoid bodily harm, picking up a king cake at Rouse’s is a small price to pay compared to dental reconstruction. Count your blessings.
9. You can do it all
Unless you are a superhero or have mastered the hidden art of cloning yourself, you better learn to accept that you simply can’t do it all. There is absolutely no way of getting to every parade, every ball, all the Mardi Gras parties and other related festivities this time of year, as there is far too much going on at once. And if you happen to suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) as I do, this can be very hard to accept. But learn to be selective. Pick and choose your most important Mardi Gras activities and enjoy them to the fullest. Having six drinks at one party is just as good as two drinks each at three different events, isn’t it? And there’s always next year.
10. If you play Mardi Gras music any other time of year, it’ll rain on Mardi Gras Day
I had never heard this until recently, but apparently this really is a thing. Some people simply refuse to put on their Mardi Gras playlist at any time except during the two weeks of Carnival, so that no one can rain on their parades. But clearly this superstition isn’t based in reality. Mardi Gras music is popular any time of year. We’ve all heard plenty of brass bands second-lining through the Quarter, or performing in bars, all year round to “Iko Iko,” “Hey Pocky A-Way,“ and other Mardi Gras tunes. And the weather doesn’t seem to pay much attention either way. Then again, in 2014 when we had that terribly rainy Mardi Gras, downloads of Professor Longhair on certain websites were at an all-time high. Interesting coincidence. Next time I catch myself playing a Mardi Gras song or two in July, I’ll pack an umbrella just in case.