This weekend’s festivities having been accomplished with all due splendor and levity, the oak trees that line New Orleans’ august St. Charles Avenue have assumed an appearance of bosky coruscation, their robust gravity lightened by a fresh load of Mardi Gras beads. The parade route has been visited by a full complement of Greek entities over the past few weeks: The Krewe of Bacchus and its attending revelries rolled through Sunday; Proteus and Orpheus delighted crowds with a metamorphic array of color and sound yesterday.
Today in New Orleans, the brisk dawn’s quiet slowly yields to cool air and laughter as families and friends establish camps along sidewalks and neutral grounds (the New Orleanian term for a meridian). Of course, true devotees arrived Friday evening to claim their territories, pitching small pavilions and readying their grills and ice chests. Before the parades begin this morning, people will stroll the streets of Uptown, delighting in the costumes of their neighbors and encountering myriad acquaintances.
The Krewe of Rex, the king of carnival, begins its Uptown circuit at 10 a.m. The main attractions, as at any parade, are the floats, the lavishly decorated, typically two-layered vehicles for the splendidly costumed riders who hurl beads, stuffed animals and doubloons to ecstatic crowds. As each float nears, the contest for booty intensifies. Pedestrians push as close to the riders as possible, and children mount their fathers’ shoulders, seeking favor of those riders on the lower level, while those further back in the crowd wave frantically and climb ladders to secure the attention of those on the float’s upper deck. Between floats, food and drink are passed around freely as marching bands from local high schools maintain the festive rhythm.
I aim, in this brief and inadequate sketch of a typical New Orleanian Mardi Gras, not only to share my love for this venerable tradition, but also to dispel the Bourbon Street Myth, that narrow-sighted view of Mardi Gras as a Bacchic ritual attended by the most depraved manner of lascivious debauchery. True, a few blocks of Bourbon Street play host to particularly fervent carousing during this season. Yet the bars are open every night of the year. Only during Mardi Gras can an entire city come together in one of the largest free parties in the world, putting aside racial and social differences to raise a chorus of “Throw me something, mister!”
Of course, these various events serve first and foremost to mark the arrival of Lent, to offer a valediction to those carnal pleasures which we eschew during that somber season. Mardi Gras is rightly a day for celebration, a day on which, as Richard Wilbur would have it, love calls us to the things of this world. Mardi Gras affirms the goodness of our embodiment, fortifies us for the trials of Lent, and foreshadows the joy of Easter, wherein Christ, having through love embraced humanity, invites us through love to embrace divinity.