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Ask the average American to describe Mardi Gras, and their answers will likely follow a theme: boozing on Bourbon street, frequenting bawdy bars and glimpsing chest-baring co-eds. In a word? Debauchery.
But ask any New Orleanian the same question, and their responses are sure to paint a more wholesome picture: enjoying picnics, gathering with friends and family, and celebrating local culture and tradition. In a word (or two)? Family-friendly. In fact, says Bobbi Mannino, public-relations representative for MardiGrasNewOrleans.com, most of the outside world has their renowned celebration pegged all wrong.
“They’re thinking of ‘Girls Gone Wild’ on Bourbon Street,” she says. “That’s not Mardi Gras.”
First celebrated in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and brought by France to her American colonies, the first Mardi Gras processionals began in New Orleans around the 1830s. Featuring legions of “maskers” on foot, in carriages and on horseback, those early 19th-century celebrations paved the way for today’s traditional parade krewes and routes.
Starting with the Christian season known as Carnival that begins officially on Jan. 6—called Epiphany or Three Kings Day (among others), when the three wise men brought gifts to baby Jesus—the celebration continues through Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday.” In essence, it’s the feast before the fast of Lenten Season, from midnight on Mardi Gras (Ash Wednesday) through Easter Sunday.
So if wild street parties are your preferred “feast,” the French Quarter or “downtown” is where you’ll find it. But head uptown toward the Garden District and beyond, and you’ll discover an altogether different brand of celebration.
“There’s another huge world that exists that’s not even close to what you see on Bourbon Street,” says Violet Peters, president and CEO of Jefferson Convention & Visitors Bureau, Inc.
Outside of the French Quarter to Jefferson Parish and surrounding suburbs, she says, Mardi Gras is a fun, wholesome experience that’s geared toward children and families. In addition to the parades, floats and marching bands, she says, “Kids have so much fun catching stuff off the floats. It’s just a wonderful experience.”
It’s precisely why Erich Faust, a 6th-generation New Orleanian who lives in Longmont, Colo., tries to return annually during Carnival season to his hometown with his wife, Lora, and three kids. Growing up with fond memories of parties, debutante and masquerade balls, and the pageantry surrounding Mardi Gras festivities, he strives to share that tradition with his family.
“I want my kids to experience it because that’s I what I grew up with,” says Faust, a member of Le Krewe d’Etat, a satirical parade krewe that rides Friday night preceding Mardi Gras. “I want this unique specialness in their lives.”
[Photo: Erich and his daughters, Addy & Elise, view the parade.]
That includes attending numerous parades, where kids get to catch everything from beads to stuffed animals, light-up toys and more. It’s about seeing old friends and family along St. Charles Avenue amid the stately oak trees, dressing up in costumes on Mardi Gras day and throwing around footballs while awaiting the next procession. It’s about attending post-parade parties where all the kids dump out and compare their treasures, and eat King Cakes in search of the tiny, plastic baby hidden inside.
“Many people think it’s all about what the media shows,” Faust says. “But it’s all about family.”
To him, it’s just like they say in New Orleans: “Laissez les bon temps roulez,” let the good times roll.
“Don’t just accept what you see on TV,” he says. “Go and experience Mardi Gras for yourself.”
Family Mardi Gras DOs and DON’Ts:
1. DO head to the French Quarter during the daytime to catch the area’s historical sites around Jackson Square, shop along Canal Street and taste beignets from the world-famous Café Du Monde. (There’s also the Louisiana Children’s Museum in downtown New Orleans.) DON’T book lodging there or frequent the area at night unless you want to subject your kids to raucous revelry. (Plus the traditional floats can’t even go in the French Quarter due to size restrictions.)
2. DO visit St. Charles Avenue and the Garden District to witness the historic homes and experience firsthand the quintessential local Mardi Gras parades. DON’T book lodging here if you’re on a budget because it’s the prime area for tourists.
3. DO consider staying outside Orleans Parish in surrounding suburbs, where lodging is more budget-friendly, and parking is typically free and plentiful. DON’T miss a chance to experience the bayou at the new wildlife and fisheries museum Lafitte Barataria Museum & Wetlands Trace, located in historic fishing village Lafitte (about 20 miles southwest of New Orleans). “Kids will be delighted by a surprise visit by Privateer Jean Lafitte,” Peters says.
4. DO take the kids to Family Gras, a free festival on the neutral ground (median) along the parade on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie, Jefferson Parish, the first official weekend of Mardi Gras (the weekend before the one preceding Fat Tuesday). DON’T miss the local food vendors and famous musical acts—this year’s lineup includes Lou Gramm, LeAnn Rimes and The Beach Boys, to name a few—before watching the parades.
5. DO tell the kids they’ll be catching more than just beads, including toys, doubloons and trinkets. And if they’re really lucky, they just might get a bedazzled shoe from the Krewe of Muses or the coveted coconuts from the Krewe of Zulu. DON’T forget to bring a bag to catch all the loot.
Photos courtesy of Erich Faust.