I was probably about 9 or 10 years old before I learned that not only is Mardi Gras NOT a national holiday, but that most of the country couldn’t even tell you what or when it was. Culture shock was moving from New Orleans to Texas as a 12-year-old and not understanding where the king cakes were on January 6th, or why the stores were filled with Valentine’s Day décor and not Carnival throws. Shock, I tell you.
Mardi Gras time in New Orleans is magical. Many people, including my homeschool friends at the time, recoil in horror when I wax nostalgic about Mardi Gras. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind for most people is topless drunk women and all manner of drunken revelry on Bourbon St. To be fair, I can see why. New Orleans has had a rather racy, raucous reputation since it was founded in the 1700s as a colony for the social misfits, rejects, and downright criminals scooped off the streets of Paris. No, literally – the King of France wanted to populate the port city quickly and efficiently, so he sent the prostitutes, the criminals, the gamblers, and the pimps to NoLa. I recently read a fascinating book by Gary Krist called “Empire of Sin” and learned volumes about the colorful and questionable background about the city I call home. Really, NoLa was doomed from the start when it comes to respectable, moral living. So there’s that.
But here’s the thing: Mardi Gras is not all crazy, sinful, depraved behavior. Mardi Gras is celebrated all over the city and on the Northshore (of Lake Pontchartrain), and every section of town has their own unique way to observe the season. We lived on the West Bank (no, not THAT West Bank) of New Orleans, and the parades on that side of the river are much, much tamer than our East Bank neighbors’. In fact, when I was younger, our house was directly on a major parade route. I have amazing memories of all of our friends and family populating our house and yard, a massive pot of crawfish boiling out back, Mardi Gras music (oh yes, that’s a thing) cranked as high as it would go, a beer in every hand, Popeye’s chicken consumed by the truckload (ya gotta munch while the crawfish are cookin’), sitting on my uncles’ shoulders when the floats went by, screaming “Throw me somethin’, mister!” at every float rider (even if they weren’t a mister!), stomping on doubloons as they flew off the float in order to ensure someone didn’t grab it first (watch your hands, people), and every kind of “throw” from the floats you can imagine – beads, of course, but also spears, stuffed animals, roses, Moon Pies, cups, toys, and of course, doubloons. We all dressed in costume – it was like another Halloween. In the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, playground conversation revolved around “what are you going to be for Mardi Gras?” the same way we did in October when asking “what are you going to be for Halloween?” I’m telling you – it’s magical.
I have not been back to Mardi Gras as an adult. I’ve never gotten to experience one of the “grown-up parades” that my parents attended every year – the Big Ones like Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpheus. I’ve never gotten a Zulu coconut or a Muses shoe. I still have a lot to experience, and now I can take Superman along for the ride. It’s a bucket list thing, for sure.
As an adult though, and longing for Carnival Time from afar, I have been able to appreciate the spiritual side of Mardi Gras. Sure, it looks like a party to End All Parties before Boring, Sober Lent starts – and sadly, to most, that’s all it is. But I think Mardi Gras is more than that. The term “Mardi Gras” itself is French for “Fat Tuesday,” referring to the day before Ash Wednesday whereupon traditionally, households would eat up all the meat and animal fat in the house (pancakes, anyone?) before the then-Church required 40 days of fasting began. Mardi Gras in its present-day form is really no different. It’s indulging and diving into continual, memorable bonding time with family and friends. It’s acknowledgement that we really are using up the excess in our lives and preparing to focus our lens inwards for the next 40 days. It’s celebrating the unique vibrancy of a city that is literally centered around one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’ve ever seen.
It’s Carnival Time, y’all.