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Mardi Gras History and Traditions

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Mardi Gras History and Traditions

Mardi Gras is about music, parades, picnics, floats and excitement.  It's one big holiday in New Orleans!

Everyone is wearing purple, green, and gold, and adorned with long beads caught from the beautiful floats. You'll see a lot of crazy costumes, kids everywhere, and both locals and visitors having a great time.  People sit on the ground, throw balls, play music, eat great food and watch the crowds walk by between parades.  During Mardi Gras, all of the businesses and roads are practically shut down.  People walk everywhere and meet new friends.  

Every year, we get a lot of questions about how it all begin, and how the traditions have changed. Keep reading to find out the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

 

Flashing Women - Mardi Gras Tradition?

We have received many letters regarding the yearly celebration we enjoy in New Orleans, Mardi Gras - the Greatest Free Show on Earth!


Why do Women Bare their Breasts?

Question: A friend of mine was at a parade on Canal Street and told me that his girlfriend got a coconut. Apparently, she had to bare her breasts to get one. Can you tell me the story behind that?

Answer: She didn't have to bare her breasts. You see, during Mardi Gras the coconuts are a great treasure, and they are hard to get. That is also true for the beautiful beads that many throw. Some people will do anything to get them. Because the people throwing the treasures know that, they will sometimes take advantage of women by asking them to show their breasts for them. 

Please tell your friend that no one has to do anything they don't want to do, and those who request women to do so can be arrested on the parade route.


Flashing for Beads

Question: I've heard that it's a tradition on Bourbon Street for women to bare their breasts to the crowd for beads. Can someone explain this? Where did this tradition come from?

Answer: As a fifth-generation New Orleanian, let me say this was never and is still not a tradition. Saying it is "tradition" is like saying that people who get drunk and pass out on Bourbon Street are following tradition as well.

Thankfully, this does not occur everywhere in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but just in the Bourbon Street area of the French Quarter. That's also an area known for its strip joints, where those interested in this sort of thing can see it year-round. Let me explain why you may have heard this rumor:

Within the last 10 or so years, a few spring break-aged tourists visiting our city have started getting drunk after the parades on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, causing them to lose their inhibitions. This has drawn a lot of onlookers. The end result is that certain types of individuals are now attracted to the French Quarter in the evenings after the parades.

Throughout the year, the beautiful balconies in the French Quarter are noted for being a wonderful place to enjoy the history, atmosphere, and culture of the city as the sounds of jazz drift by after a fantastic meal. During Mardi Gras, many think of them as a place to get away from the crowd surges below. (Bourbon Street balconies during Mardi Gras are now sold to news media, large corporations, or long-term customers up to five years in advance.)

Sadly, many bystanders caught in this crowd will never return to Mardi Gras, because they don't realize they did not experience the "real" Mardi Gras. The flashing for beads and related behavior does not occur in other areas of the city. The Mardi Gras that locals grew up with, enjoyed and love is occurring in every other part of New Orleans and the surrounding suburbs - not in the French Quarter.

The large, traditional Mardi Gras krewes who bring you the "Greatest Free Show on Earth" do not even parade through the Quarter because there is a size restriction on floats in that area.  There are some small foot-parades through the French Quarter, but nothing like what you see in photos and videos, or that you would normally think of when you hear the word "parade."  That is why you never see a large parade with floats filmed from a balcony in the Quarter - only the crowds after the parades.

The result: If you're a woman, be warned. If you go into the French Quarter at night after a parade, many men are there just to see the sleazy stuff they saw on the news or the Internet, and often assume every woman there wants to be part of the frenzy.

We look forward to the day people will again understand, appreciate and experience the magic of Mardi Gras!

(Follow-up response from one person who asked this question: THANK YOU, THANK YOU!! I'm so glad it's not a tradition everywhere in New Orleans. You are right, the news - at least in the Midwest where I'm from - concentrates all its efforts on the French Quarter.  To tell you the truth, the French Quarter at night during Mardi Gras was not my idea of a good time. I much preferred the market early in the morning, with the street musicians, artists and families enjoying the real sights. The Riverwalk is just lovely and you meet the nicest people there. Again, thank you for the correction.)


Drunken Lunkheads

The following is an exchange between a writer for a travel site and Judy Weitz, owner of MardiGrasNewOrleans.com. We are re-posting the exchange here since we encounter this sentiment and get questions like this often:

Writer: ...but it was only after we had our first Sazerac, New Orleans's most famous cocktail, that we truly forgave that steamy Southern city for hosting an annual celebration for drunken lunkheads... Whenever we have a foolish urge to head to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, we do what most wise people would: have a Sazerac and wait it out.

Judy Weitz: I just had to respond to your comments about Mardi Gras here in New Orleans. I am a fifth generation New Orleanian with two children, and when they were nearing their teenage years, I actually felt guilty for going to and enjoying parades! Why? Because Mardi Gras is and always has been a family event! It is not for drunks and never has been. It is sad that so many have that misconception.

In fact, this is the best place to come if you have a child and want to enjoy outdoor picnics and watch the Greatest Free Show on Earth. You and your family will enjoy watching marching bands, listening to music in the air and catching free toys, doubloons and beads.  You can feel the excitement in the air!

While you wait for the parade, have that cotton candy and sit down on your chair or right on the ground with the rest of your family.  Enjoy watchihng other throw frisbees and walk their dogs. Watch for the approaching parades, and see if you can catch doubloons from the celebrities.

Unfortunately, and in part due to the way the news media has focused on the activities of those who visit and go the French Quarter after the parades, when people hear the words "Mardi Gras"all they think about are the activities occurring in the French Quarter (i.e., female tourists flashing their breasts and crowd surges - a spring break crowd trying to catch a glimpse).

That is not Mardi Gras. It has absolutely nothing to do with the real Mardi Gras celebration. Unfortunately, sex makes more news, so every news camera visiting our beautiful city for Mardi Gras heads for the spring break crowd on Bourbon Street instead of giving adequate coverage to those who spend thousands of dollars and months of time planning this holiday season.

It is our hope that visitors who have seen Internet sites by tourists showcasing these tourists will realize that they are only seeing one-tenth of one percent of what happens during the entire Mardi Gras season in New Orleans.  Hopefully, people will soon realize Mardi Gras is not one big spring break for dirty old men, but an enjoyable celebration for families and friends.

Locals stay away from the crowded French Quarter in the evenings after a parade, but we wouldn't miss Mardi Gras for the world!

Writer Response: Thanks for the note. You had some very good points, and they will be well taken. Next year, we'll work to improve our coverage. Cheers!


Mardi Gras Floats

Parades are a major part of celebrating Mardi Gras, and what's a parade without some really great floats? Ever since krewes began parading through New Orleans over 100 years ago, parade floats have played a major role in Mardi Gras history. 

Some floats are elaborate and beautiful, while others are funny and satirical. Many krewes have a theme to their parade each year, and so floats are created to reflect those themes. Thousands of dollars are poured into making these floats, and they're not made overnight.  Krewes work on these creations year-round, often at secret "dens" around the city.  We're not exaggerating when we say krewes take their floats seriously.

On parade day, dozens of krewe members will ride on the floats, tossing beads and home made "throws" to cheering crowds. Seeing what the krewes come up with each year is never boring, and makes each parade as exciting as the next.