We got home last night from yet another fun-filled visit to New Orleans. As usual we had wonderful time and loved spending the weekend with family and friends. But it’s funny – recently I’ve noticed that when I mention our family trip to Mardi Gras I get some rather strange looks and comments. One lady this morning said, “Wow, you’re brave!” but with a hint of disapproval. Another exclaimed “There is no way I would ever take my kids to Mardi Gras!” accompanied by what I’m pretty sure was a judgmental, condescending look. Were they really judging me? Why did I suddenly feel like an unfit mom?
But I took a deep breath and tried not to take it personally. I realized that if you’ve never been to Mardi Gras, the phrase might conjure up images of drunkenness and girls gone wild on Bourbon Street. And admittedly, that is a definite part of Mardi Gras. But really only a sliver of what Carnival is all about. In fact, in most places Mardi Gras is very kid-friendly and truly a wonderful thing to do as a family. To put it this way – we saw six parades over the weekend and I didn’t see a single fight, drunk falling over, illegal drug, extreme PDA, wardrobe malfunction or – gasp – a single boob sighting. Seriously, nada. But I did see: kids on their dads shoulders laughing and singing, little girls in tutus happily bouncing around, children waving at clowns from their parade ladders, faces sticky from cotton candy, neighbors and friends laughing and enjoying potluck-style food. I saw two very attractive college girls who weren’t lifting up their shirt for beads, but instead entertaining my toddler with their toy bubble guns they bought from the peddling vendor. Elizabeth was mesmerized and the girls were so sweet, I would have loved to have those girls for babysitters!
So to clear up any misconceptions for anyone who has never been to Mardi Gras, or perhaps went years ago in college and never left Bourbon Street, I came up with a list of reasons why you SHOULD take your family to Mardi Gras. Give it a try.
10 Reasons You Should Take Your Kids to Mardi Gras:
1). It’s Free
For locals this is a given, but should not be taken for granted. Where else can an entire family spend all day with live entertainment, beautiful works of art, culture and tradition and come home with bags and bags of goodies – all for free? There is nothing else like it. Our family loves to go the Rodeo here in Houston – it’s huge and massive and a blast for the kids. But let’s face it, between tickets, carnival rides, games, food and souvenirs our family of five can easily spend a small fortune. Mardi Gras you can pack your own cooler of food and drink and enjoy hours of entertainment for free.
One of the things I love about Mardi Gras is the diversity. At any point during Carnival you can look down the Avenue and see people of different race, age, socio-economic background and lifestyle all invited to the very same party. And everyone is having a good time with a common goal – to catch the best throws from the floats! I love living in The Woodlands and know it’s great place to raise a family, but I think it’s good for my kids to get a taste of something else and see some people that are, well, different from most of their neighbors here in the ‘burbs.
Mardi Gras is tradition. The balls, masks, parades, everything about Mardi Gras is based on tradition. The old Krewes are made up of people whose parents and grandparents were members. The balls are very formal and extremely secretive. When I moved to New Orleans at the ripe old age of 24 it was all new to me and I was amazed at everything involved. I quickly realized I didn’t understand most of it, but was intrigued nonetheless. In this day of social media and TMI, it’s refreshing to see things that are still meaningful, sacred, special and yes, secretive. I want my kids to see people taking great pride in long-standing traditions.
4) People Don’t Take Themselves Too Seriously
Another thing I love about Mardi Gras is that people don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s a time when everyone can let loose. Take the 610 Stompers – a group of “ordinary men with extraordinary moves.” In “real” life these guys are doctors, lawyers, teachers, bankers, etc. But when you see them busting out their moves in their hilarious outfits of short shorts, tube socks, tank tops and sweatbands it’s just plain funny. I love people that have a sense of humor and know how to have a good time. Plus they support local nonprofits in the community – a win-win for all. During Mardi Gras if you happen to run into your doctor and he’s dressed as Scooby Doo most locals wouldn’t even think twice. That’s the norm. Well, unless they have surgery scheduled early the very next morning. Then they might be a teensy bit worried. But otherwise it’s no big deal.
5) Unbelievable Works of Art
Visually, Mardi Gras is spectacular. The floats, costumes, decorations, even some of the coveted throws are truly works of art. Countless hours go into the designs and production, and the end results are astounding. The Krewe of Muses is famous for the beautifully decorated shoes they hand out during parades. The Krewe members put hours into handmaking each one. They are gorgeous and each one is truly a masterpiece. And of course the coveted Zulu coconuts are individual and a true treasure for the lucky recipients. I’ve been in many offices where Zulu coconuts were proudly displayed on bookshelves next to fine pieces of art.
6). Learn Valuable Life Lessons
This year I had to watch as Allie learned a tough but important lesson – life is not fair. She was sitting in a parade ladder when a float rider threw her a fluffy stuffed animal. As she reached she lost her grip and the puppy fell to the ground. Before I could grab it another little girl snatched it up and claimed it for her own. Now I have to say overall most people are very nice, and if a throw is obviously intended for someone – particularly a small child – people will generally hand it to the intended recipient. But not always, and sometimes it’s just a tough break. In this case the little girl probably didn’t know any better, but the way she excitedly held her puppy up for everyone to see, jumping up and down hugging her new prize didn’t help the situation. One look at Allie said it all. She had silent tears running down her face. Pretty soon the tears turned louder and before long she was crying uncontrollably and gasping about her puppy in between breaths. No doubt the crying was enhanced by the lack of naps on top of the sugar she’d eaten all day, because we have a room full of stuffed animals that never get played with. However, in that moment it was a huge deal and she was devastated. The mother bear in me wanted to barter with the other girl, maybe try to trade the puppy for something else. Or somehow track down another puppy that very night. But of course I held back. I knew Allie was learning an important lesson. Life isn’t fair. Sometimes you get lucky and win the top prize. Other times it goes to someone else. It’s not always fair. She got over it eventually, and soon was distracted when she caught a strand of blinky lights and a moon pie.
Most kids I know love costumes. Both boys and girls love to dress up as superheroes, princesses, firemen, you name it. They also love to see people dressed up (don’t all little girls freak at seeing Cinderella at Disney World?). Well let me tell you, you will see all sorts of costumes and random outfits during Mardi Gras – and kids are encouraged to participate, too. I saw lots of little girls in their purple, green and gold tutus and tiaras and boys in crazy hats. There were tons of wigs, boas, and other accessories. The costumes can be elaborate or simple, but it’s fun to see so many people getting into the spirit. Down toward Bourbon the outfits can get a bit raunchy and not so kid-friendly, but uptown it’s mostly G-rated and basically just pure silliness.
8). Because Every Kid Should Feel Special
Part of the thrill of Mardi Gras is catching the best stuff. Each parade has its coveted throws and people are on the hunt to get them. My first Mardi Gras I was thrilled to rack up as many beads as I could, but that got old fast. I soon started to become more particular about which beads I caught, offloading the plain ones to someone else or throwing them on the ground and holding out for better, cooler ones. Now I think it’s fun to get the most random things I can. I don’t want beads, I want that rubber chicken (yes, our friend Tapash caught a rubber chicken this year). Or the stuffed animal, or the tambourine, or the giant cornhead I came home with one year. But there’s something about making eye-contact with a rider, getting pointed at and then being handed a four-foot long spear or a football shaped like a bunch of grapes. It’s hard to describe and sounds silly, but you feel special. Every kids should have that feeling. When they get that funny hat or giant alligator it makes them happy. And I’ve never been to a parade where every single child didn’t come home with SOMETHING cool. Even if the thrill is temporary, it makes them happy to be “chosen.” And who doesn’t want that for their kids?
9) It’s Just Plain Fun
I remember how in awe I was that first Mardi Gras. I couldn’t believe that the entire city threw a party for two weeks. I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe I thought Mardi Gras was just a really, really fun day, or at most a weekend. But it’s truly two-week long celebration filled with parades, balls, food, parties (actually more if you count the Krewe du Vieux the weekend before, which I do but it’s definitely not on the family friendly list!). My fascination peaked on Fat Tuesday. I kept thinking that while the rest of the country was at work or school, business as usual, I was on somebody’s shoulders, bloody mary in one hand, trying to catch a Zulu coconut at 8am. Conference call? TPC report? Not today! It’s fun to escape reality for a bit, no matter how big or little your responsibilities are. Kids are so over-stressed these days between homework and extra-curricular activities that they need time to just have fun, too. So go put on a crazy hat and dance in the neutral ground. When the bands start playing you just can’t help yourself.
10) Support New Orleans
New Orleans has come a long way since Katrina. In many ways it’s bounced back even stronger and better than before. But in a city so dependent on tourism it’s important for people to continue to visit to the city. Go eat at the amazing restaurants, stay in the hotels, catch a parade, listen to the live music and take in the atmosphere. New Orleans needs you. And, to be honest, we need New Orleans. There truly is no place like it.
*Update: after reading a very moving story from New Orleans, I felt compelled to add a Bonus #11 to the list.