It seems to me that Mardi Gras might be the ultimate burlesque. And what better way to kick off our blog than by exploring that?
Many years ago, as part of a study abroad experience in Spain, a woman introduced herself to the group and launched into a long exposition about why you should not go to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls. She said its “hot, smelly, and there are drunk men everywhere. Women, in particular, if you go, should be very careful because you will be outnumbered by men about 17 to 1. There’s nowhere to sleep, and there are no bathrooms. Everyone goes in the street, and it sells everywhere like a latrine. If you do go, I recommend you get very, very drunk, very, very quickly, and stay that way until you leave.”
Of course, this colorful introduction had the opposite effect intended and encouraged a certain number of people who might have overlooked the raucous and dangerous annual celebration to immediately book tickets to Pamplona. At the time, I was not one of them, although I can say with both pride and disgust that I have been to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, also and more properly known as the Fiesta De San Fermin, twice now. And the first time I thoroughly enjoyed it because I got very, very drunk as soon as I got there and stayed that way till I left. The second time I was depressingly sober for most of the trip, and couldn’t wait to leave. I’ve never smelled anything so gross as some of those streets in that little, medieval town….
On that first trip, though, while I didn’t run with the bulls, I did end up running for my life from a very angry steer in the ring, but that, as they say, is another story. My point here is that I was surrounded by New Orleanians, who shrugged in a drunken, kalimotxo (Basque – translation – don’t drink it. It’s a vile mixture of red wine and coke, designed to get you drunk and keep you awake and drunk for several days) way, “its basically just Mardi Gras, only everyone’s wearing the same costume.” At the time, I had no idea what Mardi Gras was like. I knew what tourists know, or think they know. It’s drunken, debaucherous, and to get beads girls have to take off their tops.
Two months after my first running of the bulls, I moved to New Orleans.
And Mardi Gras surprised me. I don’t agree with them, though there are certainly easy comparisons between the two Festivals. But Mardi Gras is as
much a family holiday as it is anything. Its about parades, barbecues, and, yes, beads and booze. Its about history, its about chaos, its about race, and poverty, and mostly, its about people finding joy in life no matter what. It’s a religious festival like no other in the United States. It, and the city that throws it, more properly belong to the Catholic and Caribbean cities to its south, and at no other time is this as evident as during the long days of Mardi Gras.
The parades begin in earnest about two weeks before Mardi Gras – which actually means Fat Tuesday in French, and though it has come to signify the entire season, specifically refers to that last day before Ash Wednesday, and Lent, begin. See, you know religion was gonna come in there somewhere. But the whole season is in anticipation of that one day – where you stuff yourself with King Cake, booze, or boudin. Its enjoy it while it lasts day, because it won’t, and tomorrow Lent begins, and we must practice deprivation.
Mardi Gras is, probably, most famous for its parades. And let me say, if you’ve ever high stepped with the St Aug Marching 100 on St Charles, or caught a shoe from Muses or a Coconut from Zulu – no other parade will ever be the same again. Beads fly by the thousands from colorful and often artfully decorated floats that skim down St Charles Avenue to the edge of the Quarter. Kids, drunken sorority girls and frat boys, and other adults line up on ladders to catch not just beads, but stuffed toys, doubloons, spears, coconuts, elaborately decorated shoes, cookies, candies – you name it, someone will probably throw it. At you. Be careful – I once got a black eye from an over zealous throw in my face. The ladies and gentleman who ride in the parades are not always, shall we say, sober.
Each parade is manned, or womanned, by a Krewe, and some of these Krewes date back to the 1800s. Each parade Krewe has its own traditions, a lavish history, balls of various levels of secrecy and fanciness, and tend to have a signature throw, or set of beads, and parade goers clamor to catch the best of the best the parade has to offer. Yes, booze flows freely, but it flows besides kids with kool-aid in their go cups, and you’re just as likely to be handed a cup of gumbo, a leg of fried chicken, or tinfoil wrapped sausage as anything. And you’ll eat it gladly, hungrily. Mardi Gras is not about counting calories. That’s what Lent is for.
To quote a now clichéd phrase, it is the best of times, and the worst of times. Everything seems heightened during Mardi Gras. And don’t forget, while the season starts on the Epiphany, or Three King’s Day, January 6, it lasts until Mardi Gras Day, which can be weeks or even months later. It’s a long season. Relationships with fissures will fracture under the stress. People on the verge of falling in love will tumble precariously over that edge and into bed, or to the nearest couch, or perhaps even the nearest bathroom with a door that locks. Friends will fight, make up, fight again, and someone will get left behind in the Quarter to find their own way home. Substances will be abused, emotions will get bruised, memories, good and bad, will be made. Life is heightened, and everything becomes so much more dramatic. People get tired. Mardi Gras sets a hard pace.
I’ve now experienced several Mardi Gras seasons. I’ve had good ones, bad ones, and oh my God never again ones. Every year I still learn something new. Mardi Gras has as many layers as it has neighborhoods’, histories, and peoples. But, standing on the street last week watching as the big orb announcing the Krewe of Muses, the all female, pastel parade, rolled slowly towards me, I asked myself, “Why in the world would someone want to live somewhere where this doesn’t happen?”
Tell me – when is the last time you chose to deprive yourself of something? Or to actively, blithely, and boisterously indulge in something? When did you last truly feast? When did you last fast? Mardi Gras, on that level, fascinates me because it seems almost a caricature of something we’ve lost – feast and famine. Can it even mean the same thing when we have Rouse’s, Ingles, Kroger’s, and, dare I say it, WalMart?
On Mardi Gras Day, some will go to the parades uptown, or along the route somewhere, and some will go straight to the Quarter. Some die hards will do both. In the Quarter locals and tourists alike will mingle. Girls who either no know better, don’t care, or simply want to will take their tops off, and beads will fly down from the balconies as other out of towners and locals appreciate their parade of flesh. Feathers and costumes will abound, and be haunted by the nay-sayers, the stone faced religious nuts with signs of fire and brimstone that will surely await the revelers when they die. And who try very hard to pretend they aren’t there to see the nudity and the debauchery for themselves. Mardi Gras covers the gamut, it runs betwixt and between the extremes. It’s a symphony, where the Running of the Bulls is more like a pop song.
And unlike the Running of the Bulls, there is more than one way to Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is, in my opinion, a little bit of every holiday rolled into one. There’s more than one way to Mardi Gras. But still, since I have no babies to prop up on ladders, I say, if you go for a visit, I would recommend that you get very, very drunk as soon as you get there, and stay that way as long as you can. Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler friends!
And don’t forget, New Orleans has its own version of the Running of the Bulls. But THAT is another thing entirely ;).