Mardi Gras is the most important day in the New Orleans calendar, 24 hours that epitomize the city’s splendid culture.
Mardi Gras teaches the city’s children that fantasy is more precious than fact; that regal privilege is nothing more than a rhinestone-studded crown and a papier-mâche throne; that a parade is a community; that the mask is as important as what’s beneath it. Mardi Gras colors and defines every aspect of life in New Orleans, from the white-tie-and-tails balls of the socially elite to the drumming practice sessions of Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Without Mardi Gras, New Orleans is a poor, crumbling, desperate burg that survives on past glories and dubious myths. Mardi Gras is our annual ray of glittery hope, our bright star of possibility and perversity, our civic whoopee cushion. We sing the blues with a grin because we know Mardi Gras is always just around the corner.
Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”) is a particular day—a Tuesday exactly 47 days before Easter. Celebrants often incorrectly cite this holiday as “Mardi Gras Day,” which is like saying “Fat Tuesday Day.” Carnival (from the Latin Carne vale, meaning “Farewell to flesh”) is the season of merriment commencing on Twelfth Night and ending at midnight on Mardi Gras.
The history, briefly, goes like this: our ancient pagan tree-worshipping brethren, as winter chilled their fur-draped bones, decided that getting smashed on hallucinogenic berries and dancing madly about the campfire was a much better idea than chasing after woolly mammoths with flint-tipped spears. And chasing after ancient pagan madamoiselles was a somewhat safer enterprise, particularly after inhibitions had been erased by large doses of hallucinogenic berries.
Those great promoters of civilization, the Greeks and the Romans came along. By now, mankind had invented gods (plenty of them) and wine (including gods devoted to wine). In between building temples to their gods and enjoying wine-induced intoxication, the Greeks were advocates of homosexual intercourse with teen boys and the Romans were gaga over spectacular, sordid circuses. In Rome, the ecstatic celebration was known as Lupercalia, commemorated on February 15. It was history’s first recorded S&M festival: wolves were sacrificed and whips made from their skins were used to beat women of child-bearing age, who believed the whippings enhanced their fertility.
“In Rome all social and sexual order disappeared, and for two days the entire population ran riot,” historian Henri Schindler writes in his definitive Mardi Gras New Orleans. “Patrician and slave cavorted together, and cross-dressing became common. Women of all stations prostituted themselves, as the women of Babylon had prostituted themselves in the Temple of Ishtar.”
Then Jesus, a humble, monotheistic Jew, arrived on the scene. Even He realized the cultural importance of a fantastic parade, arriving in Jerusalem on April 4, 33 A.D., five days before his crucifixion, on the back of a donkey as his fans waved palm fronds and proclaimed him the Messiah. The Jewish high priests and the Roman occupiers took note and made sure that Jesus led no subsequent parades.
Jesus’ followers became known as Christians and for a while, they provided much amusement for the Roman circus-goers who loved the pre-Siegfried-and-Roy antics of tigers sampling Christian flesh. Nothing is eternal in the realm of entertainment and before long, scandalous behavior had fallen out of favor, replaced by Christian self-righteousness and sobriety. Temporarily.
The early Christian priests and apostles, recognizing the basic human desire for pageantry and incense, realized that if believers were going to be expected to fast and abstain for 40 days, they’d better be given a few weeks beforehand to go nuts. After all, the Roman Catholics (as the Christians now dubbed themselves) had developed a wonderful recruiting tool: confession. You could do anything you wanted—get drunk, engage in homosexual intercourse with teen boys, cross-dress, whatever your base heart might devise—as long as you later confessed your inappropriate behavior to a priest, who, in many cases, was not exactly a stranger to alcohol, sodomy or the wearing of elaborate costumes. Thus, Carnival and Mardi Gras (also known as Shrove Tuesday, derived from “shrive,” meaning “to confess”) were born.
On Mardi Gras 1699 (March 3), the French explorer Pierre LeMoyne d’Iberville landed on the west bank of the Mississippi River and, somewhat melancholy for celebrations being held in the old country, named the spot Pointe de Mardi Gras. Nineteen years later, a bit upriver from d’Iberville’s landing, the city of New Orleans was founded. Within a couple of decades, the first carnival balls were staged. Louisiana was still a French colony and the United States of America was a non-existent country. New Orleans’ devotion to Carnival precedes its allegiance to the republic: the local branches of federal offices and the postal authorities observe Mardi Gras, shutting down for what is essentially a Roman Catholic holiday.
New Orleanians devote their lives to Mardi Gras. Daughters are conceived solely for the purpose of serving as maids in the courts of carnival royalty. At birth, fathers construct ladder-seats for their progeny, insuring proper childhood viewing of Carnival parades. Most New Orleans infants learn to march before they can walk. The ability to properly bow and curtsy is paramount in New Orleans society. A young man’s induction into a krewe is more important than his college graduation or matrimonial vows. Exposure to brass bands insures that all native children are rhythmically adept. The belief that reigning over a carnival ball is every citizen’s right is inalienable.
The entire year, commencing on Ash Wednesday, is spent designing floats, devising tableaux (theatrical presentations) for the balls, conceiving costumes and stocking intoxicants. Tourists, on the other hand, arrive in the city, buy ridiculously gargantuan strands of beads and head directly to Bourbon Street because they’ve done Google searches on the Internet and think they know what Carnival’s all about: women exposing their breasts! Indeed, thanks to Girls Gone Wild videotapes and a hundred web sites, the practice of females flashing mammary glands has become one of the French Quarter’s prime attractions. Glancing at a few of these web sites is revelatory: the girls in question (and the breasts) would not normally garner much attention. Breasts come in many sizes and shapes—bruised, pendulous, floppy, minuscule and scarred from artificial enhancement. The beautiful breasts are not necessarily the ones popping out from beneath college sweatshirts in the French Quarter. But the combination of countless drunken males and a coterie of “hot chicks” (to a drunken male, any chick is hot enough) is an irresistible force. It’s stupid but then Carnival is a celebration of stupidity.
The enjoyment of Mardi Gras is impossible without a mask and costume. There is no delight comparable to encountering associates who have no idea of one’s identity. Masquerading frees the individual from individuality: the costumed individual has no past, only the ridiculous present. People without costumes who participate in Mardi Gras are traitors to frivolity, spies in the house of mirth. The pleasure of walking through the ancient streets of the French Quarter behind a mask is incomparable and intoxicating. No one in a mask is ever inhibited; no person in a splendid costume is without friends.
Carnival’s greatest treasure is often overlooked. New Orleanians of all races and stations stand together on neutral grounds with visitors from around the planet. Beneath 300-year-old oaks illuminated by the kerosene torches of dancing flambeaux, they listen to music together, eat and drink together, yell for beads together. It is the sort of brotherhood imagined by Freidrich von Schiller in An Ode to Joy, where the poet declares: “Beggars are a prince’s brother.” At Carnival, Schiller’s dream is realized: “Joy is drunk by every being, from kind nature’s flowing breasts…”