All on a Mardi Gras Day
This year, we tried to capture some pictures, thanks to the new digital camera, of different sides of the festivities. For years, we have tried to convince people that Mardi Gras in New Orleans was something different, something that made this city where we lived for four years culturally unique. The destruction and devastation caused by the failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina (and let's be clear about this - Hurricane Katrina did not destroy New Orleans, the catastrophic failure of inadequate levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers did), made this mission even more urgent. New Orleans is a unique place well worth preserving. We have argued with people who we consider reasonable, who ask why New Orleans is worth saving. We think it is, and I hope this post gives some reasons why.
This picture sums up what the rest of America thinks Mardi Gras stands for. These are tourists, not native New Orleanians, who manage to get lots of beads even though they do not flash for them, and manage to have a family-friendly holiday. No, I did not take this picture, but got it off the web here if you must see the unedited version
A lot of misunderstandings about New Orleans come from its signature celebration, Carnival and Mardi Gras. For those who don't know what this means, Carnival follows the Catholic liturgical calendar. It begins after the Christmas season ends in early January, and runs until Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Because it follows the Catholic calendar, Carnival has a different length each year, and Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before the beginning of Lent, falls on a different date each year. This year, Mardi Gras was early, falling on February 5th. In 2009 it will fall on February 24th.
Carnival is historically the time when mirth and revelry reign, before people had to do 40 days of sacrifice and reflection in the time leading up to Easter. This spirit of celebration has been linked to various pre-Christian traditions - harvest, Roman paganism, etc. - but the tradition has continued to this day. Numerous European countries celebrate Carnival (I experienced Carnival first in Germany), as do a number of South American countries.
Carnival in New Orleans has been traced back to the 1700s, when the French residents hosted balls and masques. When the Americans took over in the 1800s, Carnival began to reflect some of their traditions. Societies known as Krewes began to form in the mid-1800s, and their parades and balls and the crowning of kings and queens began to dominate the Carnival celebrations.
Much of that tradition continues today, though the rest of America sees only one type of image - that of young ladies flashing their breasts to receive beads thrown from balconies on Bourbon Street. This type of revelry is the exception to Carnival and not the norm, and is usually performed by tourists to New Orleans, not residents. The Carnival that we have come to know is family friendly. It starts in earnest typically about two weeks before Mardi Gras, with small neighborhood parades increasing over the two weeks in size and frequency until, the weekend before Mardi Gras, the Super Krewes stage elaborate and fantastic parades each night.
These large parades feature as many as 30 floats, 10 or more marching bands, and can take 3-4 hours to pass by. The traditional parade route is down St. Charles Avenue, but the Super Krewe of Endymion's traditional route is through Mid-City down Canal Street. Families come out in droves to watch these parades and host parade-themed parties if they live in the neighborhoods where the parades are. People look for the politically-satirical themed floats of Krewe D'Etat and the Krewe of Muses, the fantastic and whimsical floats of the Krewe of Bacchus and Endymion, the floats of Zulu, who's tradition is in mocking Carnival, and the parade of the King of Carnival, Rex. Children eagerly look forward to the throws they get from riders on the floats, which include beads, stuffed animals, and other trinkets. During this time even the music changes, with radio stations (particularly WWOZ) playing Carnival-themed music 24-7.
Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, is headlined by two giant parades and mirth and revelry in the French Quarter. Families line St. Charles Avenue to watch the parades - it is another family holiday like Christmas or Thanksgiving - and spend the day together afterward. Others, like Megan and I, head in costume down to the French Quarter, to walk around and enjoy all the other fantastically costumed people. Of course, on that day, you will find some people enjoying the holiday for all it is worth in a minimum of dress or with a very risque taste. However, most of it is simply fun and exciting to watch.
The best part of Mardi Gras is realizing that it's a Tuesday, and while the rest of America drudges along in its work, an entire city is taking time off to celebrate life and each other, before entering back into normality. This year, Mardi Gras fell on Super Tuesday, so while our neighbors and friends back in New Mexico were standing in line trying to vote for Barack or Hillary in what appears to be an embarrasment of a democratic caucus, we were blissfully celebrating, having a drink at a little party with a guest costumed as Super Tuesday (in fabulous boots). It's a tradition unlike any other in America. That, along with the musical contributions of New Orleans, it's history as our most "European" city, and its importance as the largest port in America makes it worth saving.
Click here if you are interested in seeing more of our 2008 Carnival experience. And read this column by New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose, who sums up the end of Mardi Gras 2008 more poetically than I. For me, I'll say that after a Carnival season, the urge to settle down and become more preoccupied with more spiritual and "heavenly" pursuits almost comes as a welcome - like the rest at the end of a long day of focusing on some task at hand. Like everyone else, I'm tired, and maybe that's what Carnival is all about - reminding us that we can celebrate now and pursue the pleasures of life, but there's always a need for self-reflection and the pursuit of higher and more important endeavors. In New Orleans, that pursuit is facing reality again - for many, rebuilding homes, reconstituting family and trying to remake a once great city from the ground up.