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Carnival for newbies: A parade is not (just) a parade

mardi gras parade

“I have no idea what you mean about the list of activities, but whatever they are, they do sound fun.”

The email from my college roommate, en route to New Orleans for her first Mardi Gras, serves as a reminder that, when it comes to Carnival revelry, New Orleanians speak in shorthand.

I had outlined our agenda for the weekend: first, the greasing of the poles at the Royal Sonesta on Friday, then home for jambalaya and Hermes. I’d be riding in Iris on Saturday and we had a Thoth party on Sunday. If the weather held, we’d head downtown for Lundi Gras, but Fat Tuesday is best on St. Charles.

Huh?

My own debut Mardi Gras was in 1969 (gulp). A few weeks beforehand, a dear family friend wrote me a wittily tongue-in-cheek explanation of the holiday. The whole thing, he confided, was run by FONOF – Fine Old New Orleans Families. He went on to describe secret clubs (krewes), anonymous royalty (those silly FONOF) and rituals like proper scepter waving and toasts delivered from the balcony of the Boston Club.

I don’t remember much about the ensuing experience, since every FONOF parade-side mansion he took me into served liquor. Lots of liquor. And no one questioned a 16-year-old drinking a Bloody Mary or three. Or was it five?

I’ve introduced plenty of newbies to Mardi Gras in the years since. The FONOF has since loosened its hold on the proceedings, but many things remain the same.

During my daughters’ college years, when hoards of thirsty students descended upon us, I’d make little laminated cards documenting our address and the phone number of United Cab. Too often, someone would imbibe liberally and then wander off and forget where he/she was staying and how to get back there. By the time my youngest brought her entourage, I was scribbling the info on forearms with a Sharpie.

One year, a coed detoured on her way in from the airport to visit a friend at Tulane. We didn’t see her again for three days. (I spent the entire time rehearsing my statement to her mom …)

Like most of the better things in life, Carnival is better experienced than described. Until you feel the lust of bead-envy or thrill of mid-air doubloon snatching yourself, you won’t truly understand it.

But there are certain basics that might be helpful to Mardi Gras virgins. Here are a few things that newcomers to the holiday might want to know.

A parade is not (just) a parade: Elsewhere, the emphasis is on pretty floats and marching bands. Here, a parade is a sport, with the objective to catch everything you can from the memorabilia being tossed to the crowds. Yes, it’s worthless and weighs a ton, making it hard to take home in a suitcase. But New Orleans Carnival breeds competitiveness in a way few other public entertainments do. And, yes, the floats are pretty, the marching bands sublime.

Mardi Gras is not a single day: Well, actually it is – it’s French for “Fat Tuesday,” and refers to the let-it-all-hang out revelry traditionally celebrated on the day before Lent begins. But in New Orleans, the public revelry begins two weeks before the actual day, with a slew of parades, marching clubs and balls. Each is run by an organization known as a krewe; some are all-male, some all-female, some both. Events are named after the particular groups sponsoring them (thus, "Chaos" refers not to a Carnival condition, but to the Thursday-night parade hosted by members of the Knights of Chaos). Members pay the extravagant costs of putting on all of this free entertainment for you. So please be nice to the float riders.

Mardi Gras does not take place in a single location: Parades roll in central New Orleans and in the suburbs. Most are similar, although there are several behemoth spectacles with giant floats, LED lighting and celebrities – notably Endymion (Saturday), Bacchus (Sunday) and Orpheus (Monday). Click here for a complete schedule. In addition, marching clubs and pub crawls and street parties proliferate around town. I always tell people that you don’t come to see New Orleans at Carnival time: You come to see Carnival.

Mardi Gras is not a single kind of celebration:  As with other aspects of the city, you can pick and choose your kind of visit. If you want rowdy, head to the French Quarter. If you want under-radar and quirky, wander the Marigny and Bywater. If you are family-centric, make your headquarters Uptown or Metairie.

There are no rules, but there is etiquette: You can go wherever you want, drink and eat whatever you want, dress how you want. Carnival in New Orleans offers endless options, and is unique in its open invitation to party however you want. But. Don’t get so caught up in throw catching or personal celebration that you forget you are one very tiny part of a very large whole. Please don’t knock over small children, pee in public, overdo the Hurricanes or flash your body parts.

Those of us who live here have seen it all. We love that you are here, want you to have an exceptional time, and hope that you experience the holiday the way that we do.

People elsewhere invariably raise their eyebrows when I tell them that Carnival is a great community celebration, a time when strangers converse, exchange favors, and wander in and out of one another’s homes.

Several years ago, riding in the Iris parade, we were stopped near Lee Circle by lightening and riders told to get off the float. I set out on foot in the pouring rain for home. Within two blocks, I found myself on a random porch with a Dixie beer in one hand and a plate of red beans in the other, while my spontaneous host used his cell phone to call my husband.

That’s New Orleans Carnival. Enjoy.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]