NEW ORLEANS – Mardi Gras is a buffet of colorful characters dancing and stumbling along old, beautiful streets, where the feeling of freedom is palpable, saturated in the dripping humidity of the New Orleans’ air.
The 180-year-old festival has everything from cheerily grinning grandmothers to suicidal 20-year-olds, from “titty”-obsessed frat boys to devout, sin-fearing Christians, from shuffling homeless locals looking to profit from the visitors to bright pink wig-wearing tourists looking for a reprieve from reality. It’s an alcoholic’s wet dream, a cultural enthusiast’s heaven, a trash collector’s nightmare.
“It’s the best place on earth,” said Jackie Hammond, a long-time attendee of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. “It really is – New Orleans is just the best place on earth.”
I attended Mardi Gras with a party of people, of which Hammond was a member. Our party consisted of family and close friends who, over the years, made it a tradition to attend Mardi Gras every year together.
While some in our party stayed through to the day of Mardi Gras, I only attended the festival the weekend before, which is a time known to draw a particular crowd of partying tourists. The end of the weekend and the day of Mardi Gras attracts more locals, though the partying of the weekend before is a sight to see.
French for “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras can be traced to its origins in Medieval Europe. The contemporary celebrations seen in New Orleans, Louisiana are derivative of the Christian feasts of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, which culminate on the day before Ash Wednesday.
The first modern Mardi Gras parade was held in 1837 and the day of Fat Tuesday commemorates the final feasting before the ritual fasting of Lent – hence, the decadent food, copious amounts of alcohol, and carnival-esque partying that is equated with Mardi Gras today.
As a first-time attendee, I was overwhelmed immediately by the lavish costumes boldly parading around town and the jam-packed bars of sloppy-drunk partiers, such as in the Carousel Bar & Lounge of the Hotel Monteleone.
Its modern cultural festivities, specifically on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, have taken on new traditional phenomena. The tradition has, since its commencement in Louisiana, become synonymous with the city of New Orleans.
Beads are thrown hazardously from balconies: currency in exchange for bare-breasted women. But the beads can endanger Mardi Gras go-ers and the shuffling crowds on the packed streets are forced to shield their heads in unified fear of injury.
Spontaneous wedding proposals and out-of-towners having heart-to-hearts with the local homeless population are also a part of the Mardi Gras scene. Elaborate costumes of purple, green, and gold – symbolizing justice, faith, and power, derived from the 1892 parade – remain a common site on the wild streets, populated with free jazz musicians and mounds of forgotten beads.
For authentic N’awlins food, Coop’s Place in the French Market is essential. After stuffing your face with scrumptious jambalaya and red beans and rice, the Cat’s Meow is the place to go if you’re looking for the best karaoke bar in the world. For a dive bar with strong mixed drinks and the world’s best blended Irish coffee, you can’t get better than Molly’s on Decatur.
Tables of tarot readers, processions of abortion-hating Jesus advocates, and bag-pipe playing Scots populate the cobblestone-lined parks, the bead-ridden streets, the beer-sloshed bars. It’s an assault on your senses, your organized, scheduled daily routines, your expectation of a simple, mildly satisfactory existence.
It is a culture that invokes wonder – a place and a population of so much depth – and I had only just begun to scratch the surface. The worst thing about Mardi Gras is that, at some point, it must end. But the best thing about its annual close is the certainty of its return.
For some, Mardi Gras is a haven of boobs and beer. For others, it is a culture propagating sin and fear. For all, Mardi Gras is a tradition espousing personal values: a yearly reminder of whatever it is you cherish.
Mardi Gras demands intimacy between those you know and those you don’t, between close friends and strangers – all who eventually become family. Once there, you find yourself a part of something larger than your average reality. Participation is unavoidable, and you are taken with the beauty of so much unabashedly, self-professed expression.
Stripped of the anxieties of routine, deadlines, and generalized human uncertainty, the culture of Mardi Gras requires you to feel the freedom of life without restraint. It is a cultural phenomenon all should experience at least once, to know what it is to dance drunkenly in the streets of a beautiful town with strangers, synchronizing your movements, concerns, and good intentions with its non-discriminating way of life.