Celebrating Mardi Gras in St. Louis, Missouri

Whether it’s the city’s French roots or its large Catholic population, St. Louis, Missouri, has long had one of the best Mardi Gras celebrations in the United States. Festivities take place in Soulard, an historic district of south St. Louis, and they include a parade, live music, and of course, more beads and libations than you could ever imagine.

St. Louisans like to boast about their sports teams and Forest Park, but mention the words “Cardinals” and “Rams” outside of the US and chances are you’ll only be met with blank stares. However, if you tell people that you live in the home of Anheuser-Busch, or Budweiser, chances are much better that you’ll encounter a nod of recognition.

I might not trust those who boast of being from a “beer town” to drive me home on a Saturday night, or to perform open-heart surgery after a happy hour, but I’d feel no qualms about asking them to throw a massive Mardi Gras celebration. Second in the U.S. only to the legendary festivities in New Orleans, St. Louis’ Mardi Gras attracts hundreds of thousands of people to its streets each year– more or less depending on the weather, which was, mercifully, rather mild this year.

Admittedly, St. Louis’ celebration is usually a bit cooler and more tame than that of New Orleans, its neighbor down river. Rather than wearing wacky, revealing clothing, most revelers in St. Louis do their best to bundle up in the cold weather– though a stray nipple or two can almost always be found.


This year, melting snow made for some rather slushy conditions on the streets, and my shoes soaked up water like a Brawny paper towel. But once that first sip of Budweiser– sweet nectar of the gods– touched my lips, I quickly forgot about my squishy shoes. Five hours later, as I stumbled groggy-eyed out of the all-you-can-drink Budweiser tent, I was just thankful I still had shoes.

Inside the beer tent, I witnessed people jockeying for position alternately in the beer line and then the bathroom line, and repeating as necessary. It occurred to me that drinking enough to kill a horse is hard work, and that those of us in the Midwest work harder at it than most. As Chuck Klosterman once wrote, “There are a lot of drunks in this world, but people in the Midwest drink differently than everywhere else I’ve ever been; it’s far less recreational. You have to stay focused, you have to work fast, and you have to swallow constantly.”

As I walked unsteadily down a Soulard street, I eventually ran into a large crowd rocking out to the musical stylings of Evolution, the self-professed “World’s Greatest Journey Tribute Band.” They weren’t the biggest name in the music business– hell, they didn’t even impersonate the biggest name in the music business– but when I eventually stood in the Porta-Potty line behind their lead singer (whom I referred to as “fake Steve Perry,” as in “You guys sounded great, fake Steve Perry”) somehow it all seemed perfect.

How to dress for Mardi Gras in New Orleans

New Orleans, I love ya, but you’re a dirty city — especially in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras. In fact, I’ve ruined a couple pairs of pants thanks to the “drunken sludge” on Bourbon street (right). After my first few trips to Mardi Gras, I got smart and went on a shopping spree at the thrift store before heading down, and now it’s a tradition. Here’s my yearly shopping list:

A few pairs of old pants. I like to head for the slacks aisle and pick up a few pieces that look like they’re straight from the set of Three’s Company. The more obnoxious, the better. I’m not shooting strictly for style, however — it’s best to find a few pairs that are built not only for looking like Mr. Furley, but for their durability; you want something that offers a bit of warmth and will cut through the Bourbon street sludge without decomposing.

A jacket. This is perhaps the most important piece of your ensemble. You want something that’s not only going to provide you warmth on the chilly February nights, but also make you look like someone not to be messed with. I learned this trick from a guy named Eddie who wore a trench coat every year. “People never know what you’ve got under there,” he told me. Thing is, he would actually carry a machete under his.

A hat. Shoot for something dapper here — a Borsalino knock-off, perhaps, or maybe even a cowboy hat. It’s often rainy down in New Orleans, so you want something to keep your head warm and dry, while furthering your chaotic wardrobe choices.

Shoes. It’s tough to find a good fitting set of shoes at the thrift store, so usually I pick an old pair of my own from the back of the closet. The key here is comfort, as you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Keep in mind that anything white below the knees will be a muddy gray color after a few hours on Bourbon, so pick your shoes wisely.

The end result should make you look like a cross between a transient panhandler and Jack Tripper. I saw my efforts come to their ultimate fruition a few years back when I randomly bumped into an old high school pal. “Dude,” he said, checking out my wardrobe, “are you homeless?” At least I was warm.

Houma, Louisiana: Family style Mardi Gras

I was lucky enough to live in Southern Louisiana for a few years, and I had a blast at several Mardi Gras parades. But for those looking to bring the kids or get away from the debauchery in the French Quarter, consider heading one hour south of New Orleans to the town of Houma.

Houma is a smaller city, about one hour’s drive south of New Orleans [see map], in Terrebonne Parish. It also hosts one of the largest Mardi Gras Parade in Louisiana, second only to New Orleans. The crowds are still plenty rowdy, and they party in typical Mardi Gras style. However, this is a family event, and kids are welcome at the parades and often get the best “throws” (items such as beads and toys thrown from parade floats).

The parades are free and the hotels are generally cheaper than overbooked New Orleans. Great food can be found at Boudreau and Thibodeau’s Cajun Cooking or Big Al’s Seafood — all Cajun style, of course. Lastly, take a ride with Munson’s Swamp Tours for a really up-close look at the swamp life.

Houma offers a great alternative to the parking problems, public urination and expensive drinks of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A lot more family friendly than the Quarter, and still enough Mardi Gras to make anybody have a good time!

HoumaToday.com Mardi Gras Page

Carnival celebrations around the world

Vibrant music, zesty dancing, bright colors and more fun and absurdity than a lot of people can handle. Carnival anyone? For the pre-Lent partying season our minds tend to automatically think of New Orleans and Rio, but the event is in fact celebrated around the world. A few places to spice up a dreary winter before Lent kicks in:

Dominica: A small and happy island almost hidden in the Lesser Antilles, Dominica is not to be forgotten during Carnival season. Here, the local Creole expression, More Fete Less Twaka (more party less talk), rings true. Soca competitions, a Carnival beer garden, some street jams and a Miss Dominica Pageant. What more could you want from an early winter Caribbean vacation?

Munich: The Munich Carnival, or “Fasching,” is often referred to as Germany’s “Fifth Season,” when the local population truly lets loose. People crowd the streets, pretzel vendors run abound and beer runs freely. Think Oktoberfest but with confetti, masquerade balls and elaborate parades.

Venice: This year’s theme, Sensation: 6 sensations for 6 neighborhoods, says it all. Venice has been enjoying its celebrations for centuries, and through the years it has evolved into a well-known time for wild festivities. The main feature: masks. If you don’t have your own, not to worry, there are plenty of mask makers throughout the city ready to take your order.

Rijeka: Croatia’s biggest carnival was once one of the most important in Europe. Around 150 carnival groups from a dozen different countries attract over 120,000 visitors. One of the days is designated as children’s carnival, attracting 6,000 little ones. And don’t forget to check out the Zvoncari groups: men dressed up in animal skins, complete with horned masks, frantically dancing to the eerie sound of clanging bells.

Goa: India might not be the first place you would expect to find Carnival, but introduced by the Portuguese who ruled Goa for over 500 years, the celebration is still enjoyed today. Although primarily a Christian event, the Goa Carnival has absorbed many Hindu traditions, making it an extravagant event a true sight for the eyes.

Mardi Gras beads by the handfuls: What to do with them?

I’ve never been to Mardi Gras but I have beads. My first few came from a good college friend of mine who came back from New Orleans with a smile on his face and tales of forgetting that he’s from a “nice” family. Not really, I do know he had a grand time and bought beads back for everyone.

Acquiring lots of beads and trinkets is one way to measure how much of a good time one had at a Mardi Gras parade. I imagine the experience is like a giant pinata that takes forever to empty–all those colors flying.

These beads have been part of Mardi Gras since 1920s when throwing trinkets to spectators started to become a feature. The original “throws” (what is thrown) were cheap glass beads instead of the lightweight plastic ones of today. [Check out this National Geographic article for a detailed history.]

If Mardi Gras beads rain your way there are some things you can do with them once you get them home. Here are directions for how to make a floor lamp. You can also knit a scarf. How about a bead dog?

I bet you could glue those beads on about anything. Buy a cheap picture frame, cover it with beads and show off your favorite Mardi Gras snapshot. That’s my idea.