New Orleans’ astounding annual staging of an ancient European festival is both unique and intense. Carnival crosses many boundaries: ancient, pagan, Christian, gluttonous, long in duration, defining society, touching lives far beyond the approximately 1.2 million souls who reside in our area.

Many of our neighbors take full advantage of a long weekend to head to the ski slopes, the beach, amusement parks, national parks, or travel abroad. Even more stay here and fully participate in the narrative of the season’s unfolding drama and comedy. Then there are the tens of thousands from other places who leave their secure American existence traveling towards the edge of this Continent to assure they can return home with outrageous tales of scenes unimaginable in their community.

Since Carnival’s open architecture can be enjoyed as a tout ensemble the experience’s limitations are mainly defined by each individual reveler. Depending on your desires to soak it all in or stand off to the side and evaluate the proceedings, by your economic and community positions, by your tolerance and most certainly by your age, prior experience, friends and gustatory limitations, you can join in at whatever level you are comfortable on all counts.

It’s neither here nor there to your fellow celebrants whether you sip on a Big Ass Beer or dine in full Carnival elegance at Galatoire’s. You can join the 11-deep crowds on Canal Street, or find a small music club on Frenchmen. Maybe the open spaces on Veteran’s Boulevard or Judge Perez Drive are more your speed than the wall-to-wall mass of humanity on Bourbon Street. Then again, you can do it all, assuming you have been in full Carnival training regimen leading up to your participation.  

Along the way, you will likely at some point wonder why it is all happening with such fervor and duration. Festivals around the world are normally weekends with long periods of down-times and geographically confined to certain parts of communities. Carnival is nothing like any of that.

With those rule-breaking activities come responsibility and some behavioral demands for attendees. It may look like a free-for-all but make no mistake; there are expectations of everyone attending.

First of all OBEY THE POLICE, at all times in every way. When you are told to do something, do it without hesitation. You may not see the point. That’s not the point. The New Orleans Police Department, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office, St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office and the Louisiana State Police want to see the party come off so that it’s fun for everyone. They allow a tremendous latitude of individual freedom and behavior. They even join in on the fun along the parade routes. But they don’t tolerate behaviors that are grossly indecent in family surroundings and/or detract from other people’s enjoyment. Most importantly, when the police tell you how to conduct yourself, follow those directions without question or delay.  

Secondly, do not assume that your good time means anything to anyone else. BE CONSIDERATE of all those around you. Your mother’s advice to be respectful of others has not taken a holiday here.

Thirdly, driving a car may not be the best way to get from Point A to Point B. Many streets are closed. NEVER DRIVE A CAR AROUND A BARRICADE OR THROUGH A PARADE IN PROGRESS. This may be your first Carnival, but New Orleans has been doing this since 1856 and we’ve done it well. Don’t think for a moment, despite appearances, that we don’t know what we are doing. The real reason for any given situation may not be apparent. Just know that there is a reason and you are expected to respect it.

RESPECT THOSE PARTICIPATING IN THE PARADE. They are your hosts and they want you to have a good time. In fact, they are ones who pay for all the throws and the staging of the procession. Let them know how much you appreciate their generosity. A little applause or a simple “thank you” when they toss a favor specifically to you is in order. And never, never, never throw anything back at the float riders or demand they provide you with a special trinket.

As for the marching band members, when you are directed to make some room for their units, MOVE BACK. And never mingle with the band. Entering their space is a big no-no.

And really get in the spirit, COSTUME. Your clothes do not have to be elaborate, but they should be creative. Make a statement. Be someone else entirely. Dress the part. Make an effort. It’s all so much more fun when you go outside yourself.

As for drinking, the usual New Orleans’ rules apply. You can walk anywhere with an adult drink as long as it is not in a glass container. And take this last piece of advice from a Carnival veteran: HYDRATE. Carnival is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a series of long, intense days. Don’t start with the hard stuff and keep on going. Lots of regrets in that approach.

This may be the perfect opportunity and very appropriate to DRINK LOCAL, if you can. Make your Carnival beer NOLA Brew, LA 31, Tin Roof, Lazy Magnolia, Abita Brewing, Covington Brewhouse, all come in many flavors. Dixie Beer, sadly, has been brewed in Wisconsin since Hurricane Katrina.

There are more beers from the area and most of them are available at pubs, on tap, and are worth trying. Availability is a moving target.

Spirits made in the area include Old New Orleans Rum; Atelier Vie Absinthe, Vodka and Gin; Bayou Rum from Louisiana Spirits; and Rougaroux Rum, LA 1 Whiskey, and Oryza Gin from Donner-Peltier Distillery.

You are in one of the most amazing cities in the world at a time when the town shows off its heritage and its live-and-let-live attitudes. We all welcome you to a place that knows how to throw a party.  If you don’t have a good time, it’s your own damn fault.