NEW ORLEANS — Music blared from speakers set up under an ornate cast-iron gallery overlooking the heart of New Orleans’s tourist epicenter, Bourbon Street. The fact that it was 10 a.m. did not stop costumed spectators from bouncing in and out of bars with bloody marys and hurricanes.
But the crowd was not Bourbon Street’s usual tourist set. Most were locals, there to see a 50-year-old Mardi Gras tradition: the Greasing of the Poles. Once done as a precaution to keep drunken visitors from destroying the balconies that define the French Quarter, the Greasing of the Poles is now a party in itself.
While the cliche of the holiday still exists on Bourbon Street, it’s a tiny fraction of a much larger Mardi Gras ecosystem — one that’s rooted in tradition and is mostly family-friendly.
“It’s just a time when people come together and enjoy life,” says Arthur Hardy, the “Mardi Gras Guide” publisher whose family has been in New Orleans since 1830. “We like to say in New Orleans: If you die of old age, it’s your own fault, because we like to party. And Mardi Gras is our biggest party, and it’s our gift to the world.”
To compare a tourist’s experience with a local’s, I joined the visitors who flocked to the city and then spent time with New Orleans natives to see Mardi Gras through the lens of their neighborhoods, parades and parties.
For the uninitiated, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a marquee day of the Carnival holiday leading up to Ash Wednesday. Cultures around the world celebrate Carnival differently, but New Orleans stays particularly festive for about two weeks before Lent. Its Mardi Gras parades start even earlier. This year, they kicked off Jan. 4.
After putting my luggage down at the hotel, I wandered around downtown, following crowds and the sounds of drums and trumpets until I found the parade route. I could have also taken a look at the WDSU Parade Tracker app on my phone, or looked online, to keep track of the city’s many parades whenever they were rolling, but it was easy enough to find the floats by winging it.
From an outsider’s perspective, that parade on my first day seemed like many I’d been to, with a sea of happy spectators waving and smiling on both sides of the street. But what it turned out I was missing was the nuance of parade culture.