How Not to Do Mardi Gras

Article by: Adam Karlin|@adamkarlin

Tue March 04, 2014 | 00:00 AM

Listen. Mardi Gras may be the most popular time of year for tourists to come to New Orleans, but there are some simple rules and basic parade etiquette that not all visitors come to NOLA equipped with. In fact, most people seem to get one hurricane in them and all judgment goes flying out the window. 

So, as a show of Southern hospitality, we're going to let you in on the secret to doing Mardi Gras right: Mind your Ps and Qs and laissez les bon temps rouler.

Don't take your shirt off.

Photo credit: Corey Ann via Flickr Creative Commons

This is sadly the number one piece of advice New Orleans gives to the rest of America. Seriously. Keep your shirt on. We're not sure how the practice of boobs for beads started, but it has nothing to do with how New Orleanians celebrate Mardi Gras. For natives, the holiday is mainly about family days at parades, mixed with a fair bit of boozing and eating on Mardi Gras day. Exhibitionism and breast flashing is strictly for clueless tourists.

Don't block children on a parade route.

Photo credit: Derek Bridges via Flickr Creative Commons

To continue in the theme discussed above: for New Orleanians, Mardi Gras is about family. So if you're on a parade route and you see a bunch of kids, don't stand in front of them and catch beads that were clearly meant for the little ones. It is, and this is no stretch of an analogy, pretty akin to taking candy from a baby. While we're on this topic, you are within your rights to get drunk on a parade route (Mardi Gras!), but try and keep the belligerent cursing to a minimum.

Don't pee outside.

Photo credit: Derek Bridges via Flickr Creative Commons

This author must be frank: has he had a wee on the street on Mardi Gras day? You better believe it. But the New Orleans Police Department is known for their scary efficiency at catching and arresting people—and by people, I mean men in almost every case—who take a leak al fresco during carnival. Just wait. Or use this new app, the fabulously titled Airpnp.

Don’t get in the way.

Photo credit: Derek Bridges via Flickr Creative Commons

Mardi Gras is a citywide holiday in New Orleans, but in many ways, New Orleans is not a unified city. It is a town of many communities formed by race, class and history, and these communities celebrate carnival in distinct ways. As a visitor, you don't want to (sometimes literally) step on the toes of enclaves celebrating in their unique voice. For example: if you see Mardi Gras Indians marching, don't overstep your bounds to the point that you interrupt their chanting and dancing. The same goes for getting rowdy in front of high school marching bands or dance teams.

Don't come without a costume.

Photo credit: DoctorWho via Flickr Creative Commons

Otherwise, what's the point? Carnival is all about 'masqueing,' about donning another identity as we engage in the activities we should rightfully usually moderate before the enforced moderation of Lent. It's about stepping into a role within an enormous, public street theater. Mardi Gras is a participatory holiday, and if you don't wear a costume—anything even a boa and a tutu—you're saying 'I want to sit on the sidelines.'

Don't just stay on Bourbon Street.

Photo credit: Traveling Mermaid via Flickr Creative Commons

Honestly, this rule applies to anything related to visiting New Orleans. Bourbon Street is fine and fun, but it is not, to use a term that is overdone and abused, the real New Orleans. It's a marketing gimmick, a TGI Fridays mixed with strip clubs and t-shirt shops housed in pretty buildings. It's as far from the real New Orleans as Disney World is from the pyramids.