There’s a period of time in late winter which is unlike any other in New Orleans, Louisiana. No one has ever accused The Big Easy of being a sleepy town, of course, no matter what time of year it is; during February and March, though, New Orleans throws its biggest party of all. A walk through the streets of the French Quarter during this time of the year, often damp from rain the day before, can expose you to any number of things.
The air—which could be freezing or borderline hot, depending on the day—will carry a strange combination of scents to your nose. A decidedly stinky aroma might make its way over from the Mississippi River. Or maybe you’ll smell the fresh beignets cooking in the kitchen at Café du Monde. There’s a great chance you’ll smell some variety of liquor, the local drink of choice, whether you’re on Bourbon Street or not. You may even catch a faint whiff of oil that has made its way from the many refineries in the region.
There’s no telling what you might see on your walk through the streets. You’ll probably see some tourists in varying stages of drunkenness, enjoying the city. You’ll see parades with outrageous, colorful floats, marching bands, and screaming people clamoring for cheap plastic beads and stale Moon Pies. On any given street corner you’ll hear the distinctive, scratchy sounds of trumpets, saxophones, and trombones playing the New Orleans product that swept the world: jazz. As ingrained in the city as the Mississippi River, the distinctive notes of brass instruments have been heard in the streets since as early as 1838, when a local newspaper complained about the prevalence of the impromptu performances the city is now famous for.
It’s easy to get caught up in the easy going, jovial atmosphere of the city and forget that a mere eleven and a half years ago New Orleans was just about the last place anyone wanted to be. Life in the South, and particularly on the Gulf, was never easy economically. How hard the people from around here worked often mattered less than the whims of the oil market, or how often the fish were biting that particular summer.
But then Hurricane Katrina left a path of destruction through the center of the coast that stretched from Texas to Florida, with New Orleans squarely in the middle, looking more like a warzone in a distant land than a modern city in the United States. A city mostly of black residents, already struggling, was suddenly plunged into destruction. The crown jewel of the skyline, the Superdome, acted as a morgue instead of an entertainment venue. 80% of the city was underwater and crime was rampant. 1,464 people were dead.
But as southerners always seem to do, New Orleanians have bounced back, and Mardi Gras has never been bigger. In a city where the party never seems to stop, the celebration of Mardi Gras is perhaps what New Orleans is best known for. It may strike you as an odd place for such a phenomenon, especially if you drive through the rural surroundings on your way into the city, where there seem to be more Baptist churches than gas stations. But in this bastion of indulgence in the heart of the American South, the perfect life philosophy has developed—in spite of their hardships, but also maybe because of them, too. It is captured best with a Cajun French phrase, as many things probably are: laissez les bon temps rouler. Let the good times roll.
Mardi Gras, despite being nearly synonymous with New Orleans itself, was not actually born there. The celebration is far older than the city and is actually far older than most of modern Western culture.
It began as a pagan festival among Germanic tribes in Northern Europe, one meant to usher out the spirits of winter who were thought to keep the Earth in its cold hibernation. The festival’s purpose was literally to bring out the warm weather of summer, to celebrate the rebirth of nature. It was also likely the last chance to eat well for a while, as the food stores of winter usually ran out soon after.
As time passed and the world of “carnival,” as it began to be known, became Catholicized, the festival turned into a celebration before the season of Lent. Because Lent was a time of pious reflection, fasting, and modesty for six weeks before Easter Sunday, the carnival season became the opposite of that—a celebration of human impulse, excess, and sexuality. Carnival became a festival of reversal, where people could act out alternate identities and fantasies while living life for the simple enjoyment of it, ignoring the season of sacrifice that was soon to come. The festival culminates on Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the last day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, and consequently the last chance to indulge before the fasting began.
Carnival is celebrated all over the world today, from Brazil to Italy and many places in between. But Mardi Gras didn’t come to America until the French brought it here. King Louis XIV sent envoys to the northern Gulf Coast in the late 17th century, where they landed in modern day Alabama to protect France’s claim on the territory. The first organized celebration occurred in 1703 when the Frenchmen brought Carnival along with them. The birthplace of American Mardi Gras, as any self-respecting Mobilian will tell you, is, in fact, Mobile, Alabama, and only spread to New Orleans in 1837.
Mobile’s makeup as a city has parallels to the ridiculous spectacle that Mardi Gras is. Without the glamorous tourist industry of New Orleans, Mobile, known as “The City of Six Flags,” exists as a small city with a modest port, home to a mostly black, working-class population. Historically, Mobile is a patchwork quilt of influences, and that is reflected in the eclectic architecture and cultural quirks. Spanish explorers defeated the local Native American tribe (led by Chief Tuscaloosa) near the modern site of the city of Mobile in the mid-16th century, marking the beginning of European influence in the region.
From there, Mobile flew under the flag of French Louisiana as its capital, then British Florida, Spanish Florida, a short-lived, independent “Republic of West Florida,” and finally the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It didn’t stop changing hands there, though—since then, Mobile has been a part of the Mississippi territory, the Alabama territory, the state of Alabama, and the Confederate States of America. Finally, upon its readmittance to the Union in 1867, Mobile settled down. This hodgepodge of history is perfect for a city like Mobile, which is a cultural hodgepodge in its own right. The Catholicism of French Louisiana clashes with the Protestantism of British settlers, and the conservatism of the South is at odds with the liberalism of the coast, brought on by a significant “snow bird” population. A city in transition. Mardi Gras celebrates the intersectionality of humanity, and like New Orleans, Mobile seems to be as good of a city as any to celebrate that.
The capital of French Louisiana was moved to New Orleans in 1723, and at some point, the tradition of Mardi Gras made its way west, too. Mardi Gras didn’t gain widespread popularity in the city until the early 19th-century but has certainly left its mark in the time since then, becoming a bigger, rowdier version of the American Carnival than its Mobile counterpart.
The South is sometimes known as the Bible Belt, and for good reason. No other region of the United States is as religious, and not many cultures are permeated with religious undertones like the South’s is. The ideal Southern gentleman is a God-fearing, hardworking, hospitable person who likes sweet tea, country music, going to church on Sundays and Wednesdays, and maybe a little college football in the fall. Rural farm life is still a dominant lifestyle around here, and big metropolitan cities are few and far between. Things move a little slower, and I’m not just talking about the southern drawl.
This seems like the last place in the world to play host to a festival of indulgence and sin, doesn’t it? But in the middle of the Bible Belt, Mardi Gras always emerges in late winter, complete with its rowdy parades and masquerade balls where the alcohol flows freely, people wear masks, and for a few weeks, they forget their troubles and have a good time.
On another level, it makes sense that the people here would let loose in such a way. The South has been economically struggling in some sense since the end of the Civil War, and it always seems to be playing catch up with other regions of the country that are more industrialized and wealthy. The stereotypes of people from around here are certainly not endearing. But not everyone around the south is obese, dim-witted, or racist. Southerners don’t resent the cards they’ve been dealt, though—instead, they’re thankful for what they have, and some even like to celebrate that every now and then.
Now more than ever, it seems people seem to be forgetting how to live. America is famously obsessed with productivity, with an eye constantly on the future. Over half of us don’t even take all of our paid vacation days! Of course, worrying about the future is important—progress represents a better future for people all over the world. But sometimes we get caught up in the rat race and forget about what’s really important.
We exist in the blink of an eye relative to the age of the Earth. Our planet has existed for 4.5 billion years—if you lived 50 million lifetimes, the Earth would still have you beat by about 750 million years. As I’ve grown up, I’ve noticed that when people I know pass away, I get a temporary glimpse into the scale of a human life. It strikes me how silly most of my worries actually are. 100 years ago we didn’t exist, and in 100 years we again will not exist, and what we do in the relatively insignificant amount of intervening time is all we have. Too often, we get caught up in the smallness of our daily worries and stresses.
I think we would do well to adopt some of the attitudes of Mardi Gras all year around; laissez les bons temps rouler. Let the good times roll. Accept the hardships in your life and appreciate the good parts. Mardi Gras celebrates life and the present instead of being fearful of the future. Suffering and sacrifice is a part of being human—but having fun and enjoying the company of happy people is too, and every time Mardi Gras rolls around, I’m reminded of that.