You have your Mardi Gras routine planned out a year in advance. That’s easy, because you do the same thing every year, and you wouldn’t have it any other way. You have your itinerary planned out to a tee: from what parades you want to see, where you want to be at exactly what time, and precisely when it’s time to call it a day. You’ve got your spot for everything: where to put your ladder, where to find the cheapest booze, the best place to stand to get the best throws. Even the least offensive restrooms on the parade routes and how to finagle your way into them. Whether you start your Mardi Gras at 7 am and pass out by 5, or drink from Lundi Gras till Ash Wednesday, you have a strict schedule to stick to. Says Alex, a local chef, “I’m usually eating Domino’s leftovers in my underwear on the kitchen floor by 9:00 pm.”
People are creatures of habit. And nothing brings out the creature in someone like Mardi Gras can. So here is a list of some of the most interesting Mardi Gras rituals I have heard about, grouped by category. Maybe you’ll get some ideas…if ever you dare to venture from your usual plan.
- Let the good times pour! (Drinks)
This may come as a surprise, but people drink during Mardi Gras. Sometimes even a lot. But what they drink or how they do it varies from person to person, and everyone has certain traditions. Whether you’re doing shots of Fireball or King Cake Vodka cocktails (who doesn’t love a little Taaka on Fat Tuesday?), everyone has their usual poison and way of consuming it. I’ve heard of people drinking liquor from gas cans, or carrying a backpack full of mimosas around the Quarter. There’s the “Tequila Sunrise” ritual, which is just as it sounds: tequila shots all night long, until the sun comes up. Someone told me that she and several of her more entrepreneurial friends like to pull a cooler around selling beer to exploitable tourists at jacked-up prices. Want a forty? Forty bucks! Then she and her co-capitalists take their profits to the liquor store to trade them in for a couple bottles of whiskey for themselves. Some have their own traditional drinking game they like to play: drink yourself silly on Lundi Gras, and whichever of your friends passes out first is given the punishment of being assigned to babysit the cooler on Mardi Gras Day. The poor schmuck gets stuck playing bartender and passing out beers, while the rest of the gang is having fun vying for Zulu coconuts at the parade.
- Feed Me Something, Mister! (Food)
What you eat on Mardi Gras is as important and as personal a tradition as any. After all, for some, this might be your last chance to really indulge before you give up certain foods for Lent. So you better pig out in style. There’s king cake, of course, and gumbo, and ribs. Some people swear by Italian food on their Mardi Gras menu, or even sushi. There are folks who kick off their day at their traditional brunch spot, the same place every year. Others do a crawfish boil, even though the critters are usually out of season at the time. I’ve heard of many people who simply can’t survive a Mardi Gras without some Popeye’s chicken. Even if it means waiting an hour and a half in line to get their fix, Mardi Gras just isn’t Mardi Gras without it. I feel like if you’re going to work that hard for chicken, you might as well be chasing it around the fields of Cajun country the way they do in Mamou, Louisiana. (Is Popeye’s really any more civilized an option?) Surprisingly, pancakes are also a common Mardi Gras meal. So much so that the holiday is sometimes even referred to as “Pancake Day”. It’s been like that since the Middle Ages when people made pancakes to get rid of their eggs, butter, and cream that they intended to do without for Lent. Nothing like eating a plate full of pancakes with some fried chicken and king cake to help make your Tuesday fat.
- If Ever I Cease to Love (Romance)
Perhaps it’s because Mardi Gras always falls somewhere near Valentine’s Day, or maybe because most people never take off their beer goggles for all of Carnival season, but love is definitely in the air this time of year. The potential for random hook-ups seems endless, and I actually have at least two good friends who have managed to land happy, long-term relationships during Mardi Gras. (And I can’t imagine they are the only ones). King cake, whiskey, and scantily-clad women are definitely aphrodisiacs. Aren’t they? I heard a great story about a guy who picks up a girl at the Muses parade every year. They always run into each other on the same corner. Napoleon and St. Charles. Him walking his dog, her coming from somewhere or other. He takes her home with him, they hook up. Then they go their separate ways-- no exchange of numbers, no contact-- and don’t speak again for another year. Until they run into each other for Mardi Gras sex the next time around. Great story. Or so I thought… until someone else told me that they had heard the same exact thing on an episode of Treme. In any case, I am sure such things really do happen all the time at Mardi Gras. And not just on TV.
- Krewe of Boo-Boo (Personal Injury)
From the inevitable hangover to the occasional broken bone, let’s face it: Mardi Gras can be painful. With the crowds, the alcohol, the falling debris at parades… it’s become something of a tradition for a few bumps and bruises to occur this time of year. A co-worker told me she fell off a float and sprained her ankle. (Fortunately, actual float falling fatalities have been nearly eliminated since certain security precautions have been put into practice). My friend Jon broke his thumb when the spring-loaded trap door on a float crashed down on it. We’ve all heard the stories of the dangers of projectile throws coming in contact with unprotected parade-goers. Personally, I’ve been hit in the head with a second-hand coconut…after it ricocheted off someone else’s forehead and bounced back and slammed me in the noggin. Parades can be dangerous. But then, so can drunken friends. One guy told me a story of being so stumbling drunk on Mardi Gras that his roommate had to help him walk home. While staggering along, he stomped on his roomie’s toe and broke it. The city spends nearly $150,000 every year on medical services at Mardi Gras.
- Fashion Parades (What are you Wearing?)
We all know New Orleanians love an excuse to get dressed up, and Mardi Gras is certainly prime costuming season. From the elaborate Carnival masks and fancy ball gowns, to your run-of-the-mill banana or French mime costume, everyone has their traditional Mardi Gras get-up. Some people will spend weeks gluing strings of beads from parades past on a corset to wear, while others prefer to wear purple, green, and gold fuzzy leg warmers that they bought from a souvenir shop on Bourbon Street. A friend of mine has a family tradition, where everyone has to wear something interesting on their heads on Fat Tuesday. Wigs, headbands, turbans and small animals are all acceptable, but baseball caps or “normal hats” are not allowed. Katie, a Tulane student I know, wears a Kanye West tank top every year, and another girl has made a ritual out of sporting a bedazzled bra that she scored at a parade years ago. She says, “It was like a gift from a Mardi Gras angel. A lady came up to me and handed it to me. And it just happened to be my size! What are the odds?” (Probably better odds, in fact, than managing to catch a shoe at the Muses parade).
- Throws of Passion (Parade Prizes)
There are plenty of things to catch at Mardi Gras, besides a communicable disease. What would Mardi Gras be without a little loot? Like, bags and bags of it. Everyone has their rituals when it comes to throws: from which parade to go to for their bling of choice (Muses shoes and Zulu coconuts are of course among the most coveted), to how to go about getting it. Even what to do with all those parade goodies afterwards (donation, garbage, home décor, box in the attic). A co-worker says every year she dresses her dog up in a feather boa and brings him to the parades, where the cuteness factor of her pooch wins her more throws than the kids get. “The Morpheus and Endymion toys are my dog’s favorites,” she adds. Another parade-goer talks about one rainy Mardi Gras when most folks stayed home. She was able to profit from the lack of competition to come away with some serious swag. “I got 17 coconuts, a Gameboy, and a ladybug pillow pet that I still sleep with today.” (The best I ever got was a plastic toilet, a rubber ducky, and a broken coconut). In any case, nothing beats the thrill of free stuff! So come prepared. The vast majority would agree that it’s always a good idea to carry plastic bags at Mardi Gras. Besides the obvious vessel for all your parade booty, plastic bags also come in handy for wet clothes, snacks, a flask, or, just in case, anything else you might suddenly need to dispose of after consuming too much of said flask.
- Mardi Gras Crews (Work)
Whether you want to work because there’s plenty of money to be made at Mardi Gras, especially if you work in the service industry, or you insist upon having the time off to enjoy the fun, work suddenly becomes quite an issue this time of year. Not everyone can work in a place that honors the fact that Mardi Gras is a state holiday by closing on Tuesday. So people call in sick to take a day to enjoy the parades and related festivities, or else to recover from them. In certain industries, the no-call, no-show rate suddenly triples, and there is a good chance that a larger-than-normal percentage of staff will quit or be fired. Mardi Gras turnover is high. I know someone whose very existence revolves around Mardi Gras. Her entire life is a Carnival countdown clock. Every year, she requests off the entire week leading up to her holy day. If she gets scheduled, she still won’t work… she’ll quit instead. She’s left at least one job this way. In her Mardi Gras-colored world, I think it’s on a par with being scheduled to work on her own wedding day. “I’ve quit jobs for less!” she says.
So…is your Mardi Gras stuck on repeat? If you are nauseated at the thought of one more piece of king cake, if hearing “Mardi Gras Mambo” yet again makes you want to strangle yourself with a string of beads… then it might be time to branch out from your usual routine and try something new. But if you’re happy with your Mardi Gras groove as is, there’s probably nothing wrong with sticking to the same customs. There is, after all, something to be said for reliability. Of course, some experiences you’d rather not repeat…. My very first Mardi Gras in New Orleans I came home from a very long day at work at 2:30 am to find someone passed out in front of my door. He got past the main, street-facing front door into the courtyard and up the stairs. I called the police, and they came and hauled him away. That’s not really something I care to make a habit of. But the next year, when I worked Mardi Gras and made my rent in one shift… well, I suppose that’s not such a bad tradition to have.