“Be aggressive,” she schooled me. “People will run you over to get those beads.” My friend Amy was preparing me for my first foray into Mardi Gras in Mississippi. Yes, that’s right: Not New Orleans. Not Mobile, where the first Mardi Gras was held, I’d learn. But along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where the Fat Tuesday celebration predates that of New Orleans, they’ll tell you.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You’ve perfected your queen-of-the-float wave.
- Your cheap bead supply is getting low.
- Great for families and revelers of all ages.
“N’awlins just makes more noise about theirs,” native Mississippian Debbie Raymond told me. “Here we start celebrating on Epiphany, Jan. 6, and continue through to Fat Tuesday. Every community has its own parade.”
Amy and I had attended the parade in the historic waterfront town of Pass Christian the Saturday before Fat Tuesday. It’s known for its small-town family friendliness, but also for its feisty party crowd. I managed to remain upright and garner at least five pounds of beads, thanks to Amy’s briefing.
Riding Mardi Gras
Two days later I was getting different advice: “There are three basic ways to throw the beads,” Taryn began. This time I’d be the bead-thrower rather than the throwee. I was riding a float in the Biloxi parade, the coast’s biggest Mardi Gras fete, held on Fat Tuesday afternoon – the last big hurrah before Lent’s abstinence.
Happy to have experienced the receiving side of Mardi Gras first, I donned a wreath of specialty beads – ones with pearl-like white beads and Mardi Gras icons such as jesters, shrimp, and purple, green, and gold doodads. I wore a rhinestone-studded crown to represent the royalty aura that surrounds Mardi Gras.
The night before, I had attended the Gulf Coast Mardi Gras Association Tableau, a free show open to the public in Biloxi’s Coliseum, where all the dukes, maids, kings, and queens traipse across the stage in their costumes of silk, sequins, crystals, and feathers, for which they’ve laid out up to $10,000 or more. The day before that, I had seen costumes from Mardi Gras past on display at the Visitors Center in charming Bay St. Louis and the soon-to-open Mardi Gras museum in downtown Biloxi. I even met Carter Church, who stitches together 125 costumes each year with his staff of two in Bay St. Louis.
“Mardi Gras is just something I always loved as a kid,” he said. “At this point, I don’t even want to know how much time I put into each costume, because I’m sure I wouldn’t want to know how much I’m making an hour at this,” he added with a chuckle.
The Mardi Gras Way of Life
“People don’t realize how very much a part of the culture Mardi Gras is here,” said Mary Cracchiolo Spain, public relations director for Biloxi’s Beau Rivage Resort and Casino. “It’s so much more than the krewes, the parades, the balls.”
For the royal entourage, Mardi Gras is truly a way of life. Kids learn to volunteer their time to local charities in hopes of improving their chances at royalty. It helps to have Mardi Gras royalty in the family pedigree, but short of that, lots of money can substitute, locals say with a wink and a rub of fingers across their thumbs.
You needn’t be royalty to ride a float, however. Anyone, including visitors — such as the 67-year-old who rode in 2011 for her birthday bucket-list — can climb aboard for about $50 to cover their insurance liability. (Prices vary according to the different parades and krewes.) They must also provide their own “throwables.” It’s totally worth it. You may not be the queen of the day, but you will feel the power.
On a good day, upwards of 100,000 people line Biloxi’s main Highway 90 thoroughfare and downtown side streets begging for beads, plastic logo cups, Moon Pies, Jello shots, the crown off your head, whatever they can get. For these small favors, it seems you can extract whatever payment you desire – hoots (but no hooters; flashing boobs is unlawful here), throwable trade-offs, undying admiration…. you get it.
The slow progress through the parade route takes about two hours, after which you are exhilarated, exhausted, semi-deaf, and arm-sore from throwing — no matter which of the three ways you do it. The partying goes on long after the final bead-toss. Strands of roadkill beads pave the streets, crunching under car tires. Adult beverages flow freely as crowds jam into Mary Mahoney’s and other bars and casinos downtown and along the waterfront. Tomorrow, city cleanup and Ash Wednesday austerity will wipe away all traces. But today it’s Mardi Gras in Mississippi! Better than anything in New Orleans. At least that’s the advise they’re giving out on the street in Biloxi.
- For more information on Mardi Gras, accommodations, other local attractions, and riding a Mardi Gras float, contact the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 888-467-4853 ext. 211.
- The Mardi Gras Museum is scheduled to open in June 2013. Call 228-435-6245.
- The Visitor Center for Bay St. Louis lives in the town’s historic train depot. More information: Hancock County Tourism Development Bureau
- The proper way to prepare for the long-haul of Mardi Gras is with beignets and shrimp and grits at McElroy’s Harbour House in Biloxi, 228-435-5001.
- Revive at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant, 228-374-0163
- Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, 228-386-7444