Flashing for Mardi Gras Beads - A Carnival Tradition?
We have received many letters regarding Mardi Gras, the Greatest Free Show on Earth. Here are answers to some of your most frequently asked questions.
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: First off, she didn't have to bare her breasts. Like all signature Mardi Gras throws, Zulu Coconuts are a great treasure. They are hard to get and 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 flash in public can be arrested. They might even find photos of themselves all over the Internet for years to come.
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 mostly 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.)
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 watching 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!