When trying to explain the importance and rich heritage of Mardi Gras to those who don’t live in New Orleans I usually get a slew of puzzled looks. Too often the Carnival season is associated with underage drinking, topless tourists, and immorality in general, but to locals Mardi Gras is much more than that. Personal observation has led me to believe that the season is about strengthening our community, improving the city for guests, and celebrating our culture.
What most refer to as Mardi Gras is actually the entire Carnival season, which begins after the Catholic Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. Mardi Gras translated from French is simply “Fat Tuesday” and is followed by Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Today, the season begins with balls, both masquerade and debutante, and peaks two weeks before Fat Tuesday with major krewes (organizations that put parades together) riding floats in the Uptown, Downtown and Mid-City districts of New Orleans.
Despite what most think, it is a family-friendly event and students at local colleges and high schools usually get a week off to participate in the celebrations. The community pulls together to make Mardi Gras happen as the krewes are independently run. Participation is never lacking, however, because the krewes are hundreds of years old and quite prestigious. New Orleanians have to fight for available spots to ride on the floats (waitlists to ride in some parades have reached two years). Most people just opt to join the crowds that watch the parades roll by and enjoy the large parties thrown on the neutral grounds of major streets.
Although local government isn’t involved in the operation of the parades, they do realize the importance of the event and work to improve streetcar lines, fill potholes, and make sure alcohol permits are up to date in restaurants and bars to keep tourists happy.
Overall, Mardi Gras is really a celebration of New Orleans itself, and what it means to be a part of such a unique city. It is truly a representation of our city’s resilience, and shows our willingness to maintain a glass half full attitude even in the face of hardship.
Photo Credit: DoctorWho