Carnival, or Mardi Gras (as those from the “Great Elsewhere” call it), is my favorite time of year. However, this wasn’t alway the case. In Carnival terms — in life terms in general, really — I’m a late bloomer. This year will mark my third Carnival season, and my first full season. Before this time, I suffered under the assumption that most of the rest of America suffers under: that “Mardi Gras” is a Tuesday where everyone gets hammered and where flesh is the easily exchanged currency for plastic beads and other trinkets. Not really all that bad when you think about it, and the fuel for many a young spring breaker’s fantasies. Because lets face it, what rational college-aged person (or even us middle-agers) doesn’t like to blow off steam, drink way too much alcohol, and try to see a few boobies.
If that was all Carnival was about, it would still be enough to recommend it to a vast swath of our population. Twenty-somethings, repressed housewives, pillars of the church community, closeted businessmen, cross-dressers — what have you — all finding anonymous Bacchanalian solace a thousand miles from home. Because honestly, the spirit and the flesh are not inseparable, and sometimes the flesh needs a release from the onerous demands of the spirit, and the spirit itself needs to indulge in fantasy.
And that is closer to the truth of what Carnival is about: it’s about fantasy. It’s about reinvention. It’s about being a better — maybe different — or more actualized you. It’s about pushing boundaries, or crossing over them all-together. Those plastic beads aren’t just trinkets, but a direct indicator of exactly how much fun you had the previous night and the implied lurid details. They are also the roadmap to your Carnival, like profane rosary beads they each mean something different, whether the invocation was a flash of flesh on Bourbon Street or a “throw me something mister” from the top of a ladder on St. Charles Avenue.
Yes, and that’s another thing: Carnival is for the kids too. While the rest of the country sees it as a debauched adult holiday, the reality is the majority of the parades are a delight for children too. Pageantry, brightly colored floats, precious trinkets, beads, cups, doubloons, coconuts, et al all form the purple, green and gold tapestry of a youth known nowhere else. Children aren’t just spectators either, but the participants as well. Twirlers and elite marching bands from the middle and high schools of New Orleans are as integral to the spirit and the practice of Carnival as the fire twirling flambeauxs and Rex. Because these traditions go back three hundred years from the time the brothers La Moyne, better known as Iberville and Bienville, first found the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Tradition is held onto dearly in New Orleans, and carnival, for all its escapism, is bound tightly by tradition. Whether it’s the old time krewes of Uptown or the Creole Wild West early on a Mardi Gras morning, traditions are the glue that bind the fantasy together. Because without these traditions, Carnival is merely a chimera, a fleeting dream. Tradition is what keeps the dream alive, whether it is families occupying the same neutral ground location on Saint Charles or on Orleans. Whether it is Rex or Zulu, Canal or Claiborne. Long lost friends and barely known relatives who appear out of nowhere to sleep on couches, futons, and floors if you live along the parade routes — hell, even if you don’t. Because it’s Carnival time.
America, in general, takes itself far too seriously. It is a workaday world with little time for frivolity and even less for magic. We are a results driven society. A humorless society. That is why I live in New Orleans now: because it so little resembles the rest of America. We have time for frivolity here, and more than a little time for magic. The only results we care about for a little over a month are who got the baby in the King Cake and who got the best throws. We measure performance in beads and outlandish stories. We get our laughs from Krewe du Vieux. We crown our own kings and look to see who’s the prettiest. In a world that can often seem so glum, this mid-winter burst of color and joy and life fills my heart with delight. And while the rest of America may think we’re philistines, I say let them eat Applebee’s; they never really got it anyway. But for those who do — for those who come here like myself and never leave; for those who understand that wonder is the only thing we have left sometimes; or for those who just feel like square pegs everywhere else but fit in here… it’s Carnival Time… and everybody’s having fun…