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It would be hyperbole to say that Mardi Gras is a sanctioned riot.
With three million people dancing in the streets generating over a billion dollars in local revenues, “Fat Tuesday” in New Orleans, Louisiana has been declared “The Greatest Free Show in America.”
My first experience in “N’awlins” happened to be Mardi Gras. I was walking down the street with a “go cup” filled with some sort of libation. At first, I was a bit out of sorts, sashaying down the avenue, drinking a cocktail. I watched cops lounge on the hoods of their squad cars, laughing at the mayhem going on around them.
Only when there were a few flashing girls and bare-hiney men did they get up to issue warnings.
I was astounded by the heathens bouncing about like banshees, diving to the pavement for a tin coin called a “dubloon.”
I witnessed an old lady wrestle a construction worker for a set of beads that couldn’t cost more than fifty cents.
All in good fun.
My knowledge of Mardi Gras was influenced by MTV and “Girls Gone Wild” videos. I had no idea what it all meant and frankly no desire to shake what little I have in the chest department for plastic beads.
I was fortunate my hosts were born and raised in Metarie, so I wasn’t in the midst of all the drunken debauchery.
They made sure I saw Mardi Gras the right way. Like a local.
They knew all the prime spots. They took me to the best parades. Everyone was dressed up as a character. A lot of thought went into their costumes. Holly pulled two huge boxes out of her attic and told me to pick who I wanted to be for the day. Because she grew up in Metarie, she knew someone on every float. Holly told her friends I was dressed as a scarecrow and asked them to throw good beads my way.
She wanted me to get the full experience. I didn’t understand.
I squinched my eyes in confusion.
Right in the kisser with a huge bundle of beads.
I ended up negotiating with a five year old. And lost.
“Hey,” I whined. “Those are mine.”
He grabbed the beads out from under me.
“Snooze you lose, lady,” as he ran off with my bootie.
By the third parade, I had on a helmet and spikes pushing the little punks aside.
“Mine!” I cried, as I shoved my boon into my sack.
Most people think Mardi Gras is the one day celebration. It’s actually an extension of Carnival which translates “farewell to the flesh.” Carnival starts January 6. The Feast of the Epiphany, otherwise known as Twelfth Night. It ends two weeks later on “Fat Tuesday,” the day before Ash Wednesday.
Ironically, this pagan bacchanalia invites the juxtaposition of that which is sacred on one end, and wicked on the other. The Roman Catholic celebration of the appearance of baby Jesus and the arrival of the Magi share the stage with the satirical antics and hedonism brought over from the pagan traditions. This last minute carnality is deemed a necessary period of merrymaking and overindulgence before the abstinence of Lent. It is an accepted forum for sexual expression and political lampooning stemming from Greek and Roman traditions dating as far back as the 5th Century.
There is a certain mystique that lies beneath the surface of all the festivities and buffoonery, music and merrymaking. Because of its ancient ritualistic origin, Mardi Gras marks the celebration of rebirth that comes with Spring, a full sense of fertility and life the pagans so reveled. The awesome masks, satin covered horses and the ever present tribal drum beats stir the pot for fun and celebration.
“Throw me something Mister” is the mantra and the motto is “Let Pleasure Rule” and “Let the Good Times Roll.”
I hid behind my scarecrow mask with cocktail in hand. I felt like a local that day, a bag full of beads and coveted treasure. A smile on my face that seared happiness into my soul.
The party was over.
Till next year.