Right now, people around the world of French, Spanish, and Portuguese heritage are celebrating Marti Gras or Carnival. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of Lent. For the non-Catholics out there, Lent is a period of 40 days, Monday through Saturday, of fasting, abstinence, prayer, and preparation for the holiest day of the liturgical year, Easter.
For Americans, when you think of Mardi Gras, you think of New Orleans. It is hard to explain Louisiana, New Orleans, or Mardi Gras, to people who have never experienced it. My mother's family is from New Orleans and my Aunt Stacy still lives there. Even as a person who has visited during Mardi Gras and other times of year, it can be a bit difficult to give a true understanding to the uninitiated.
The first non-native inhabitants of New Orleans were Spanish. As a result of the never-ending warfare in Europe during the 1600's, it became a French territory. Today we don't think of the French as powerful warriors and great explorers, but before the American Revolution the French controlled most of the interior of North America and had explored the entire length of the Mississippi River. New Orleans was a critical location for controlling North America. It was the principal outlet for all commerce between the Appellation and the Rocky Mountains.
Louisiana is a truly unique place in America and a substantially different melting pot than the rest of the United States. The culture is overwhelmingly influenced by its French origins. However, French of several different flavors. The Cajun are the Acadian French expelled by Brittan from costal Canada in the 1700s who resettled in Southern Louisiana. One flavor of Creole are the original Spanish and first French settlers along with several tribes of local Indians who became franconized. Another flavor of Creole are French colonial Western Africans, Carib Indians, Haitians, and other Caribbean islanders who settled in Napoleonic Louisiana. Each brought with them parts of their own culture and language, which mixed and mingled in a culture of French aristocracy, commoners, American trappers and pioneers, plantation owners, and slaves. As recently as forty years ago, another dash of seasoning was added to the area when large numbers of fleeing French colonial Vietnamese settled in New Orleans mixing some of their own flavor into the culture.
Imagine a place that brags about not having a single shred of puritan ethic, is overwhelmingly Catholic, and a large number of believers in Voodoo. (Yes, just like West Africa and Haiti, there are plenty of Voodoo believers who are also either Catholic or Baptist.)
In a place like this, just days before literally putting on sack cloth and ashes, denying your self earthly pleasures for 40 days, what do you do? You throw one of the world's biggest parties with the goal of satiating every earthly desire. Marti Gras literally means Fat Tuesday referencing the last day of feasting and revelry before Lent.
Mardi Gras is a week long party where several hundred thousand people are walking around in costumes and several hundred thousand more are dressed in purple, gold, and green, draped in beads, all while drinking large rum drinks or beer, doing what people do when they are semi-anonymous, drunk, and are in a city throwing the world's largest hedonistic party. (WARNING, the best looking women at Mardi Gras just may be men. One of my friends who joined me on a Marti Gras trip discovered this in a rather unsettling way.)
The most famous part of Mardi Gras is the numerous parades. The parades feature marching bands, celebrities, floats, and float riders who throw untold numbers of beads, doubloons, and a multitude of other souvenirs and novelties. Some of the best parades are:
Endymion - the Greek god of handsome men and fertility, the largest parade of Mardi Gras
Bacchus - the Roman god of wine and drunkenness as well as drunken orgies, featuring
the most elaborate floats, big national celebrities, and Las Vegas type showgirls
Cleopatra - the all female parade
Choctaw - themed for a local Indian tribe with both street and river parades
Krewe d'Etat - a pirate themed parade
Proteus - the oldest parade, which is Egyptian themed
Zeus - the only night parade
Zulu - the all black parade featuring marching jazz bands. People in the crowd throw
money to the musicians who bend down to pick it up while marching without missing
a single note! Only the chosen very few in the crowd are given a coconut from the
people on the Zulu floats; and
Rex - the parade, which originated the colors of Mardi Gras, purple, gold, and green. (Purple
for justice, gold for power, and green for faith.)
At 12:01, Wednesday morning, mounted police sweep the revelers from the streets and send everyone home. On Wednesday morning, much of the city goes to church, goes to confession, puts on ashes, and begins its fast.
Mardi Gras is not for the feint of heart. However, for the adventurous, it is something that should be sampled at least once.