Mardi Gras

I wanted to let everybody know I survived my first Mardi Gras.

Carnival season begins here in New Orleans on the 6th day of January, also known as Twelfth Night because it’s the 12th night after Christmas. I believe it commemorates the visitation of the Magi.

I knew Carnival had begun when one of my co-workers brought a king cake to work. This is a large pastry decorated in Carnival colors — purple, gold and green. Hidden inside one slice of the cake is a small plastic baby. Whoever gets the slice with the baby has to buy the next cake.

What is Carnival anyway? It’s the season before Lent, that 40-day period of privation and fasting that begins on Ash Wednesday. Hundreds of years ago, people began celebrating the day before Ash Wednesday as a sort of last fling before Lent. This day became known as Mardi Gras, which literally means “Fat Tuesday.” I guess this single day of celebration eventually expanded to a whole season, known as Carnival.

Originally Carnival meant “farewell to the flesh.” It’s still celebrated in most Catholic countries, and New Orleans is definitely Catholic country.

The festivities really picked up about two weeks ago when the parades began. I’ve seen at least ten parades in that time — maybe more — I’ve lost count. These parades are kind of like the familiar Fourth of July parades we all know and love, except that they’re totally different. In fact I’m kind of at a loss for words.

Each parade is sponsored by a different social club (they’re called krewes) and travels a different route through the city. The Krewe of Bacchus brought their parade down our street, right in front of our apartment. The parades feature marching bands and elaborate floats. The riders in the floats (krewe members only) throw beads and other goodies to the crowd. XY caught a doubloon from the Bacchus Grand Marshall, Luke Perry! We also saw Britney Spears and Whoopi Goldberg.

Of course you don’t have to be Catholic to celebrate Carnival. Lots of people come from all over to celebrate. This year, there were estimated to be over 2 million visitors. The mayor announced yesterday that 1,230 TONS of trash had been collected!

I’ve never seen such madness. The city really does shut down and everybody joins the celebration. It’s so incredibly massive, and so much bigger than anything I’ve ever seen, that it was hard to remember that in most of the rest of the country, these were not special days at all.

Unfortunately I came down with a mild cold on Lundi Gras (that’s the day before Mardi Gras) so that put a bit of a damper on things. But since all the parades come within four blocks of our apartment, I was still able to get out easily and see the sights.

Mardi Gras has a somewhat tawdry reputation, which you may or may not be aware of. Lots of college students come here to drink heavily and take off their clothes. But that kind of behavior is largely confined to the French Quarter. For most of the people living here, it’s a family holiday. Kids love parades, after all.

I could go on and on, but duty calls. I’ve got flyers to design, CD-ROMs to burn, websites to update, and design documents to write! It’s back to business as usual.