One of the greatest parties in the world takes place right here in the US in February. This being the Year of the Dragon, I was not about to miss an opportunity to be a part of it. And so last week I boarded a plane with my family in tow and made my way down to New Orleans for what is known as the ‘greatest free show on earth’ ~ the fabulous festival of Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras, or ‘Fat Tuesday,’ carries on the spirit of the spring and fertility festivals of the days of old. When Chrisitianity took hold of Europe, religious leaders feared public uproar if they abolished the ancient traditions completely. Instead, they chose to weave many of the central themes into new religious rituals and celebrations. In the case of Mardi Gras, also known as ‘Carnival,’ its roots can be found in old Roman celebrations with names like Lupercalia and Saturnalia, wild fertility festivals with excessive amounts of carousing and debauchery, feasting, drinking, dancing, singing, celebrating Spring in all its glory of rebirth. This morphed into the feasting of eggs, milk, cheese and meat that would take place the day before Lent, marking the 40 days of penance that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter. Around the world, the gluttony of the last day before the fast is enjoyed with a variety of regional sweets; there is Shrove Tuesday/ Pancake Day (in England), Fasnacht Day (a German-American confection), Malasada Day (a Portugese confection), Pączki Day (a Polish confection), and in Iceland it is known as Sprengidagur (Bursting Day).
Carnival, or Mardi Gras, spread from Rome to Europe and then was eventually brought to the Americas, carrying with it the festive atmosphere of its roots. Masked balls, parades, feasts, and street parties were and still are a part of the celebrations. Arriving a few days before Fat Tuesday, I was expecting a Girls Gone Wild scene and prepared my kids to expect the unexpected. Instead, it was a free-spirited primarily family-friendly celebration. There were not just one but many days of floats whose costumed participants tossed beads, stuffed animals, cups, frisbees, and trinkets of all kinds. Revelers on decorated balconies all over the French Quarter had plenty of goodies to drop over the iron rails into the hands of party-goers below. My kids’ backpacks grew heavy with treasures as the days went by. It culminated on Fat Tuesday, a day of frenzied energy; music, dancing, drinking, exquisite hand-made costumes, beads, feathers, masks, floats, torches, King Cake…the whole city simply sparkled in gold, green and purple. So far in this wonderful little life I have never experienced anything quite like it.
The streets shut down at midnight to prepare for Ash Wednesday, when the city would begin to empty; and while New Orleans is always celebratory, the winds of change could be felt as the season of Lent began in earnest. And though I arrived home a few days later to a still barren wintry landscape, I took comfort in having kicked off the season of Spring already, in having seen the first hint of green shyly greet the world, the young gators already emerged, in having bathed in a warm southern sun full of promises. If there was any doubt that the long Winter days would never come to an end, I have a suitcase full of beads to prove otherwise. And if you go, which I wholeheartedly encourage you to do, please don’t worry; at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, to get yourself some beads, the only thing you have to reveal is your biggest smile.