I was reading a post at Sociological Images about the mistaken assumption that Mardi Gras means nothing more than lots of drinking and women flashing their bare breasts in order to get a strand of beads. That’s such a sadly shallow understanding of the celebration.
I remembered the photo I took at the Mardi Gras Zulu Parade in 2007, and I still think this photo really captures a lot about what Mardi Gras really means in New Orleans.
First of all, most Mardi Gras parades are kid friendly, family events. The beads and other trinkets are tossed from the floats at random, or to the people shouting and waving their arms the most for a “throw.” Sometimes, as in the case of the wonderful handcrafted Zulu coconuts like the one seen above, it’s a good idea to get as close to the float as possible so you can get something handed to you instead of thrown at your head.
Second, New Orleans is so much more than Bourbon Street. The parades routes often go through residential neighborhoods, as you can see in the background. People set up BBQ grills and have family gatherings on their front lawns, and local schools and churches set up informal food and drink booths along the route for what is often their biggest fundraiser of the year. It’s more like the 4th of July with a better color scheme.
Third, Mardi Gras means so much more than just parades and costumes. For example, notice the colors of the beads the father in the picture is wearing. The colors purple, gold, and green all have a meaning: purple symbolizes justice, gold is for power, and green symbolizes faith. And don’t forget that Mardi Gras has religious origins: the Mardi Gras season begins twelve days after Christmas on January 6, the feast of the Magi (or 3 Kings). After Mardi Gras comes Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a time of fasting and prayer.
Sure, Bourbon Street is always an option for celebrating Mardi Gras, but don’t expect to meet many locals. You’ll likely find a lot of tourists celebrating what they think is Mardi Gras, missing out on experiencing an amazing celebration in an amazing city. But hey, at least your beer money is going to the local economy, and you’ll get to take home a string of cheap plastic beads as a souvenir.