I lived down in the New Orleans metro area for 10 years. About this time of year you could feel the Mardi Gras fever start to rise. For this year 2023 Anno Domini the “Laissez les bons temps rouler” festivities of the season will start rolling this coming weekend and not wear out until Feb. 21. That’s the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday opens the Lenten season.
Yes, I have attended, regaled and greatly enjoyed more Mardi Gras celebrations than any professional practicing Protestant should admit to. Especially as a Presbyterian which religious history considers we Presbys ought to be dour, conservative, traditional with a twinge of superiority and entitlement. Or so I’m told.
We’uns up North at this time of year are more concerned about getting covered over by whiteness of snow and frost. But our deep southern cousins are airing and wearing their parade colors of purple, green and gold.
Oddly, there is no verifiable explanation as to what the colors mean. The first Rex, King of Carnival, declared them to be the colors of the flag of the royal troupe, but did not say why. Doesn’t matter the locals filled the void. Likely the most popular description is that the purple is for royalty, i.e., Rex. The green is for hope or maybe prosperity. The gold goes beyond prosperity straight to wealth. Greed is good.
For those of us who are hindered by being monolingual here are the French to English translations needed; “Mardi” means Tuesday. “Gras” means fat. Put together the phrases Mardis Gras and Fat Tuesday doesn’t make much sense without considering Ash Wednesday. Essentially put them all together and you have a bi-polar midweek personality; debauchery on the Tuesday in preparation for the coming penitence on Wednesday and the trek to the Cross on Good Friday.
So yes, Mardi Gras could be considered a religious holiday, sort of. However, you don’t see the Archbishop tossing out beads from the Krewe of Papal Padres. Like a lot of natives of the Crescent city he’s probably over on some beach in the Florida Panhandle.
Like I said up top I did do a bunch of years’ worth of parades. A lot of them were in the day’s way ahead of the actual Fat Tuesday. You see, it happens all over the area. Mobile, Alabama likely had the first one back in the mid-1800s. New Orleans started up in 1872.
And it’s more than parades with the floats and bands and horses and strutters and second liners and people in masks riding floats throwing off trinkets and beads to crazy drunks who are shouting “Trow me sumpin’ mistah. Houses get decorated. People host parties. Tens of thousands of Arkansas Chickens are sacrificed on the altars of Popeyes outlets. And yes, I’ve heard people do drink alcohol.
Did you know Fat Tuesday was an official school holiday in South Louisiana? The state government and local parishes traded Memorial Day for it. After all, Memorial Day was a Yankee thing honoring the Union boys in blue. The mail gets through, but the banks and stores are all closed. Closed also are the major boulevards of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue.
I was there in those golden olden days of the ‘70s and ‘80s at least for the parades before the Real Day. I missed out on several Fat Tuesday Tuesdays. Like tons and tons of other locals we headed out of town. We’d go north up to Amite and tube down the Tchefuncte River. Don’t even try to pronounce it. Or head east for a Gulf beach. We’d leave it to the real die hards, the louts and loutesses in the Quarter and the folks who had never seen or heard the St. Aug High School band dance-march and play great music at the same time.
“But what’s it really like to be there in New Orleans for Madi Gras?”, you ask. And why do it? The parades? The whole of the Mardi Gras event? Did I know about how it all arose out of those Re-constructionist days with their emerging Jim Crow times? No, not really. Just didn’t make the connection.
In the deep South four and five decades ago what we saw in Mardi Gras season was probably the most racially free and integrated time of the year. Black, white or whatever when we were out there together on the banquette (sidewalk) or the neutral ground (median) we were all having fun, watching out for each other’s little kids and sharing beads and doubloons because there was always enough.
Why go to it? The whole Mardi Gras madness? For the Roman Catholic folks, it traditionally was a chance do what you wanted to do before the 40-day Lenten Lock Down (excluding Sundays). I failed to ever see much connection with that aim. For us Protestants it was maybe a chance to do what we were homiletically chastised not to do ever, anywhere, anytime. Don’t! So we did.
For me/us and my church on the West Bank? We did the Sunday after church before Fat day compromise. Still great parades, almost as many as The Day all over the City. My whole congregation, after the shortest sermon of the year, packed up and headed out together. Fat Sunday!
We’d board the Gretna free ferry over the M’sippi River to the Garden District. Haul our coolers and kids in the Radio Flyer wagons with sideboards. Set up in front of the Napoleon Avenue Presbyterian Church. (They had toilets. Password: “I’m from Bob’s church.”)
Then we’d intrude into a spot on the curb, flail our arms in a plaintive way and shout for those beads, doubloons, kazoos, trinkets and other useless stuff. We all gave into the wantoness of the masses. Greed and hedonism were ok, expected, demanded even. It was Mardi Gras. You had to be really stupid or really, really drunk to get arrested that day. I was neither.
I survived those many Mardi Gras celebrations. I enjoyed them. Not my best social presentation as a clergy person, but I left my collar at home. I had no religionist presence that day nor did the day have any religious significance to me. Whether you were Catholic, Protestant Presbyterian or Protestant Pentecostal, practicing atheist or hide a beer Brown Bag Baptist, it mattered not.
Mardi Gras, as practiced when I lived there, was a day to celebrate, we were all happy, sharing, laughing, urging, in it together, being what humans are supposed to be — a vibrant community of people joyous to be alive. At least for that one day. Tomorrow may well be different. We’ll see when it gets here.
I guess what I’m saying is that maybe on Mardi Gras it was ok to take a day off from Keeping the Faith — Doing the Job — and Asking for Help. Maybe.
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