“The New Orleans Carnival season, a variation of the traditional manner of preparing for the start of the Catholic season of Lent, starts after Twelfth Night, on Epiphany (January 6). It is a season of parades, balls (some of them masquerade balls), and king cake parties. It has traditionally been part of the winter social season; which at one time was when parties for Southern Society women, débutante balls, were arranged.”
As an intensely Catholic city, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday in French, is the last hurrah signaling the beginning of the Lenten season, which begins the following day on Ash Wednesday. Calling Mardi Gras a “party” is akin to calling a hurricane a mere “wind storm.” It is a raucous anything-goes event of immense proportions. At some point the Cajun expression “Laissez les bons temps rouler!,” which means “let the good times roll,” came to symbolize the spirit of New Orleans and certainly of Mardi Gras.
Ironically, the average New Orleans native would be chagrined to learn that Mardi Gras did not originate in the city.
“The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced to medieval Europe, passing through Rome and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries to the French House of the Bourbons. From here, the traditional revelry of “Boeuf Gras,” or fatted calf, followed France to her colonies.
On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans, and named it “Pointe du Mardi Gras” when his men realized it was the eve of the festive holiday. Bienville also established “Fort Louis de la Louisiane” (which is now Mobile) in 1702. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated America’s very first Mardi Gras.”
In 1718, Bienville founded New Orleans as a French colony, but it was not until 1740, that the first ‘official’ Mardi Gras was held. Although, it was certainly not the Mardi Gras that exists today, ‘Fat Tuesday,’ became a vital part of New Orleans’ allure.
As with other New Orleanians, Mardi Gras was a command performance in our family. For days, my great-grandmother, mother and others readied the food, drinks and other necessities that we’d carry on our trek to our family designated spot on St. Charles Avenue and Felicity Street. There our family gathered to await the start of the first parade of the day. As a child, I was excited beyond belief and found the wait for the first float or truck interminable. When the parades finally began, the game was on to catch the most beads and doubloons, generally, which worthless coins thrown by floats and trucks, that people literally fight over. After having my hands stepped on one too many times, by adults mind you, I learned never, ever to retrieve the coin with my hand. The trick to stake a claim on a doubloon was to step on it. Doing so proclaimed to the world that the doubloon was yours and you were the victor — at least that time.
As I grew older, I actually participated in the Mardi Gras parades. During high school, I became a cheerleader. The parades, a significant part of Mardi Gras, includes marching bands from schools in the area and beyond. It is a distinct honor to be chosen to take part in a parade. My high school received the nod to march in a number of parades, and the cheerleaders were a part of the marching unit. Although I remember how much I complained and ached afterward, having the opportunity to participate in the hallowed Mardi Gras celebration was an experience that I treasure to this day.
I feel wistful knowing that I won’t be in New Orleans tomorrow. Although I can’t be there in person, I will be there in spirit for the event that exemplifies the heart and soul of New Orleans, the city that I still call home.
All Will Be Well, ~ Julian of Norwich