Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent on the Christian calendar. While Fat Tuesday refers to just one day, the Mardi Gras season actually begins on Twelfth Night, 12 days after Christmas. Twelfth Night celebrates Epiphany, when the Christian tradition tells us the three kings brought their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. In Louisiana, Twelfth Night means King Cakes start making their own appearance at local bakeries and grocery stores with a little baby Jesus doll tucked inside of each (if you get the piece with the baby, you have to bring the King Cake to the next party). From Twelfth Night through to Fat Tuesday, there are many different parties, balls and parades to see. One of my favorites was always the Krewe du Vieux, an early parade through the French Quarter which I always had a party for when I lived in New Orleans near the parade route. The parades really kick into high gear a few weeks before Mardi Gras Day, getting bigger and better as they go. And then finally, the big day arrives. People don their costumes and take to the streets for one last big celebration with plenty of eating and drinking before lent begins the following day.
It was wonderful to be back in Louisiana for the end of the Mardi Gras season this year. I got out to see parades in several different towns, and then made my way back to New Orleans for Fat Tuesday itself. It’s a wonderful time of year to be in Louisiana, and for those who have never been, it is so much more than the booze fueled tourist mess you’ve seen on COPS and Girls Gone Wild. It’s full of food and fun and family, parades throwing beads and stuffed animals to kids sitting atop ladders, good vibes and a chance to let your hair down and relax. I needed to let my hair down and relax a bit this time around, and Mardi Gras has been just the cure to the February blues I needed.
I started my Mardi Gras this year with a quiet walk through the French Quarter just after 8 a.m. I was surprised at how few people were out and how quiet it was. The street cleaners were just finishing up on Bourbon Street which gleamed in the morning sun. Jackson Square was empty and there were plenty of open seats at Cafe du Monde. I always love walking around the French Quarter early in the morning, but it was amazing to see it cleaned up and waiting for the revelers to come out and play.
I made my way into the Bywater neighborhood to meet my friends Mike and Kristy, who had graciously invited me to spend the day with them. We were meeting at their friends Michael and Louise’s house for breakfast, and it was a lovely old New Orleans home. They had a wonderfully eclectic collection of New Orleans memorabilia around, an amazing bar in their back room, and even a jukebox full of great tunes. It is truly a remarkable home, and the perfect place to start the day (read an article on their back room bar HERE). They served a delicious breakfast which was just what we all needed to start the day, and, of course, champagne! It was wonderful to hang out in their beautiful home as their friends arrived in marvelous costumes, happy and excited to start the day.
We hung out there for about an hour, and then went outside to enjoy some sunshine and watch people wandering down Chartres Street towards the French Quarter and the festivities. Around 9:45, we got everyone together for a group photo and then made our way up to the old firehouse on Mandeville Street to join the St. Anthony Ramblers’ Walking Parade through the Bywater and the Marigny. It was a wonderful walk with a brass band leading the way and hundreds of people decked out in their Mardi Gras best, drinking and dancing along to the beat.
We stopped at several places along the way, but eventually ended up at Sidney’s Saloon on St. Bernard St. for a much needed bathroom and cocktail stop. It was here that we ran into the Black Hatchet Tribe of Mardi Gras Indians representing the 9th Ward. I was so excited to see the Mardi Gras Indians on their march through the streets. The history of the Mardi Gras Indians stretches back over a hundred years, and each tribe spends thousands of hours each year creating their amazing hand-sewn and beaded costumes. Seeing them out and about, I lost all interest in the Ramblers for a while, and ran up and down the street like a gleeful child snapping hundreds of photos. You can check out my favorites in a post I wrote HERE.
As they headed up St. Bernard to find other Tribes to meet with, a big part of me wanted to follow along. But I also wanted to see what else was happening in the French Quarter, so I went back to meet up with the gang at Sidney’s. We hung out in the street for a while, before heading back down Kerlerec Street to R Bar. By the time we reached R Bar around noon, the streets were pretty packed with people and everyone was having a good time. It was around this time that Mike and Kristy and I decided to abandon the Ramblers and head off into the French Quarter.
We made our way to Cosimo’s, one of my old neighborhood haunts when I lived just a few blocks from it in the French Quarter. It was busy, but not packed, and we managed to get a drink at the bar and hang out for a while. With all that marching and drinking, our thoughts turned to lunch. Everywhere was, of course, packed to the gills. We finally ended up at another of my old neighborhood favorites: the Quartermaster Deli. This may not be the best place to eat in town, but it’s open 24/7 and I have eaten many a late night meal there over the years. They served us up some enormous Poboy sandwiches which really hit the spot at that time of day.
Our stomachs full, it was time for us to carry on down to Fahy’s, the other bar I frequented when I lived in the French Quarter. Fahy’s is actually where I met Mike for the first time, now a dozen years ago. Mike and Kristy had their wedding reception there, and it is our favorite place to watch Saints football away games. Most of the people who had been at our breakfast that morning were employees or regulars at Fahy’s, so it was also where we all ended up at that time of day. It was nice to sit down, have a few beers and talk about the day.
After an hour or so at Fahy’s, Mike and Kristy were on their way to the Erin Rose and I decided I was going to leave them to it. It had been more than kind of them to share their morning with me, and I thought it would be nice to let them have some time on their own without me tagging along. Plus I wanted to take advantage of what daylight was left to take some more photos around the French Quarter.
I wandered down to Bourbon Street, which was by then a completely different scene than it had been at 8 a.m. People were everywhere, beads were flying off of balconies and music was pumping out into the streets. I always think it’s a shame that that scene is what most people think of when they think of Mardi Gras, because there really is SO much more to it than just that. Even what we managed to do with our morning only really scratched the surface of what Mardi Gras has to offer. To each their own, though.
I wandered down to Jackson Square, also packed by that time, and down to the river. I had a beer and listened to some music and then headed up to Royal Street to take some more photos. I got great photos of people’s costumes all day, which you can check out in a post I created HERE.
By that point, the daylight was starting to fade. Like many New Orleanians, my Mardi Gras doesn’t extend after dark. That’s when the crazies and pickpockets come out and when the tourists crest that wave and crash down on the other side. I was sad to leave the party, but it was definitely the right thing to do. I made my way slowly out of the French Quarter, and headed for home (not my home, but my friend Luke’s home - it was amazing to have a place to go back to after such a busy day).
Mardi Gras is a funny thing because it’s something I had looked forward to for so long. I haven’t been to Mardi Gras since 2015, and it was definitely always a part of the planning for this trip. There was so much anticipation for it, that it couldn’t have possibly met all of my expectations, but I must admit it came pretty close. I will just need to come back again to see and do all of the things I haven’t yet been a part of on Mardi Gras Day. It probably won’t be next year, but I will be back for it.
Many thanks to Mike and Kristy for sharing their day with me, to Michael and Louise for allowing a stranger with a camera into their lovely home, and to one of my best friends, Luke, for letting me stay with him whenever I’m in New Orleans. Y’all certainly made all of this possible.