Many of us relish Pancake Day, Christian Shrove Tuesday; that period of indulging before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Known in French as Mardi Gras (literally, ‘Fat Tuesday’, due to the consumption of rich food before religious fasting), many countries and cities have adapted ‘shrovetide’ into specific carnival seasons, fantastically enjoyable festival periods – most famously in New Orleans, Louisiana, where Carnival feasting begins on Epiphany, or ‘Twelfth Night’ (January 6th), and masqueraded frolicking around Mardi Gras itself. As James R. Creecy wrote, “Shrove Tuesday is a day to be remembered by strangers in New Orleans”. In other words, it’s a time to pack your bags and travel to the Deep South.
Louisiana’s first celebration of Mardi Gras took place in 1703, just after French settlement, and originally formed part of the winter social season for society ladies. The idea to combine that with a parade of secret mystic societies, or krewes, didn’t occur until 1830 and was only formalised 26 years after that by a group of Creole businessmen. Mardi Gras became a legal state holiday in 1875 and the krewes are a staple of the parade today, riding elaborate and colourful floats (including the traditional purple, green and gold) and flinging free ‘throws’ of stringed beads (the glass ones are especially coveted by revellers), ‘doubloons’, cups, and inexpensive toys to jubilant crowds.
Many tourists flock to the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, but in fact the parades can’t fit through there. Rather, head to the Uptown and Mid-City districts to satisfy your visual curiosity. The formal end comes at midnight, when Rex meets His Royal Consort in ‘the Meeting of the Courts’ (since 2006, at the Marriot Hotel). The anthem of Mardi Gras is If I Ever Cease To Love, after all.
Though past parades have been cancelled due to war or adverse weather, Carnival itself in New Orleans has never been called off. The devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 put that determination into doubt, but it still continued, though scaled down due to government bankruptcy and routes altered by cause of severe flooding in others. It was an act of defiance against atrocity; a celebration of being alive – the New Orleans spirit.
Of course, it’s not just that city which Louisiana puts all the celebration into: other areas of the state get festive with town balls (some masked), and Cajuns (les Acadiens) retain the Courir de Mardi Gras Medieval French tradition in their rural heartland. So, get travelling. As the slogan goes, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (“Let the good times roll”). Pre-empt the Easter travel crush and find some fun in the South, either for Carnival or the Jazz & Heritage Festival (now in its 45th year). Begun by George Wein in 1970, with the supporting musical spirit of Mahalia Jackson and the Eureka Brass Band, along with Duke Ellington, the Festival is a cultural phenomenon not to be missed.
New Orleans: birthplace of Jazz; a place to feel alive again.