WHAT IS A YEAR OF MARDI GRAS? MARDI GRAS IS A DAY, STUPID!
I know it is, but My Year of Mardi Gras is an online memoir detailing my relocation to New Orleans as ‘40’ nips at my heels to pursue two dreams: 1) To finally publish and support myself as an author, and 2) To experience this fascinating city as a local. Along the way, I hope to join at least one Mardi Gras Krewe and write about these enigmatic social organizations while chronicling my explorations of and adventures in the Big Easy.
OGRES, ONIONS, PARFAITS & PARADES, OH MY!
Now that you understand ‘what’ MYOMG is, you may still be surprised that I would use such a ‘crass’ frame as Mardi Gras to tell my life story. To keep you from misunderstanding my project, then, I must first clear up misconceptions about Mardi Gras.
I can’t count the number of times someone has told me: “I have no desire to ever go to Mardi Gras and get into that mess.” By that mess, they always mean Bourbon Street. Granted, I’ve been on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras and stuff goes on there that would make the mayors of Sodom and Gomorrah go, “Dude! Really?” But skipping Mardi Gras because of Bourbon Street is like canceling Christmas because your weird aunt always buys you socks.
Though generally not a cartoon connoisseur, I love the scene in Shrek where Ogre uses an onion as a metaphor to explain that while scary on the outside, ogres are complexly layered and misunderstood creatures at their core, at which point Donkey humorously suggests using cakes or parfaits instead: “You know, not everybody like onions.” The interplay of this scene could easily be applied to Mardi Gras, a celebration that is one of the most richly layered and delicious cultural parfaits in our great nation, yet mistaken by many as a big scary ogre from which they’d rather keep a curious distance. “I’ll watch the movie, but pass on visiting the swamp, thank you.”
At first I too assumed Mardi Gras was just beads and boobs and booze and abandon. The more I’ve learned, though, the more intrigued I’ve become by the complex religious and political ties, history and pageantry, and layered intricacy of this celebration. Mardi Gras’ basis is actually Catholic. Translated ‘Fat Tuesday,’ this is the day of excess preceding the fasting of Lent that begins Ash Wednesday. It’s hard to pinpoint when this tradition bloomed but various historical tomes place its first celebration close to the very founding of Louisiana.
Since it’s establishment, New Orleans has been French, Spanish, briefly French again, and then American. Throughout all these periods it was heavily Africanized. Owing to this mixing of cultures, N’Awlins is popularly referred to as a ‘cultural gumbo’ and Mardi Gras is perhaps the best metaphor for and manifestation of these hundreds of years of cultural interplay simmering beneath the humid southern sun. Mixing these various traditions, this holiday has grown into an entire season celebrating life and culture that transcends class and color, offering something for saints & sinners, old & young, hipsters & traditionalists, and rich & poor alike.
Head down St. Charles Avenue and you’ll witness gorgeous parade floats passing picturesque neighborhoods where parents spread out picnics as their children sit atop festively decorated stepladders to catch the loot. (Yes, the beads and trinkets thrown from floats are intended more for children than porn-challenged adults.) These parades are organized by ‘Krewes,’ or social clubs, representing people from all levels of society. The oldest, most exclusive Krewes are made up of the oldest and wealthiest families and end their parades with elaborate formal Balls steeped in traditions of stringently executed ritual and etiquette. Newer, open-membership Krewes hold Balls that are giant parties anyone can pay to attend. In predominately African-American neighborhoods, many of which are deeply impoverished, Mardi Gras Indians spend all year hand sewing and decorating stunningly elaborate costumes for display in unsanctioned, roving parades on Mardi Gras Day. The ultimate complement to a Mardi Gras Indian Chief, resplendent in beaded, sequined glory, is to tell him he looks pretty. In what other city will white, middle-class visitors feel compelled to tell a black man from a rougher neighborhood that he’s ‘pretty’?!
This is just small taste of the rich and varied layers of the Mardi Gras parfait. It’s invigorating how there is both little and yet absolute connection between the Indians, the floats and the parades, the picnics and the house parties, the Balls, and the Kings and Queens and the Krewes. This irresistible yet indecipherable gumbo also serves up celebrity high school bands, churches selling beer in the basement, dancing torch bearers called flambeaus, selfless philanthropy, collective brotherhood, and a sense of community throughout a city absolutely committed to celebrating life in every conceivable corner in every conceivable way at every conceivable level. Mardi Gras isn’t a few weeks of planning followed by a big blowout. It’s a year of preparation and perspiration that unfolds over several weeks like a military campaign hell-bent on spreading heaven throughout the darkest months of the year. Granted, a segment of the city flees the madness of Mardi Gras, but I can think of no other day in no other American city where the population comes together in such ubiquitous collective celebration. Christmas and Thanksgiving are celebrated in private and cities don’t grind to a halt for the Fourth of July, but during Mardi Gras schools close, work shuts down, and everyone who isn’t working events or fleeing pours into the streets.
So, it may be as easy to dismiss Mardi Gras along with My Year of it, but if you continue to cling to your misconceptions you’re missing the parfait for the fluff on top.
SO YOU’RE HAVING A MIDLIFE CRISIS—WHY NOT BUY A SPORTS CAR?!
So now you see that Mardi Gras ain’t all that bad. How though, you may still wonder, did I decided to abandon my career, uproot my life, and use Mardi Gras of all things to hitch my wagon to and frame my life story around? As with most stories, it was unexpected turmoil that led to change and (hopefully) triumph. Click here to learn WHY his idea took root and grew to fruition.