Mardi Gras has been celebrated in one form or fashion in New Orleans for over 300 years. That, my friends, is a lot of celebrating. Over the years this carnival has become more elaborate, with more crowds and Krewes—Krewes are the groups that put on each of the parades. The Krewes were more generous and socially conscious with their throws—the things thrown from the floats. This year, one parade, Iris, threw branded coffee, red beans and jambalaya mixes, soap, tooth brushes, all of which were made locally. The king of the Hermes parade threw roughly 100 strands of real pearls, each valued at something-like $1500. To say that Mardi Gras is a celebration of excess would be an understatement.
New Orleans is predominantly a Catholic city, so it is no surprise that this celebration has thrived. For weeks prior to the Lenten season, New Orleans is getting all of its most outrageous celebrating out of its system in preparation for Ash Wednesday and giving up something for Lent. You are probably aware of people giving up candy or meat or something special for the 40 days of Lent. In my house growing up, we ate Fish on Fridays during Lent and were encouraged to give up something, most often sweets.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans has been a tradition in my family since before I was born. By the way I was born in New Orleans. I remember going to Mardi Gras when I was a small child camping out on the side of the street to get the best spot for the biggest parades and sitting in the seat on the top of the ladder, as so many children do during that celebration, to get the most throws. Throws most often went to children and pretty women. As I remember Mardi Gras, people fought for throws, pushed and shoved for throws. If two people caught the same strand of beads, often they would both pull so hard on the beads that the strand broke apart. And we are talking about cheap plastic beads. The throws, besides beads, were generally cheap plastic toys and doubloons. Although some Krewes threw special items, for example Iris threw decorated high heel shoes and Zulu threw decorated coconuts.
I participated in a truck parade when I was in elementary school, but I generally stopped going to Mardi Gras when I turned 18. I did bring Martha to one Mardi Gras early in our relationship, I think in part for her to understand more about me and my family. And I did ride in one more Parade, one of the biggest, Bacchus, when I was in my early 30’s, because my father and brothers were on the Krewe of this parade. Today my brothers and one of my nephews continue as part of Krewe Bacchus, and my middle brother is a sergeant of one of the Floats—BacchaKong. Mardi Gras is fun, but for me once every ten years or so is enough. The gaudy costumes and outrageous behavior, including the excessive drinking did little for me after so many years being a part of it. It seemed to lack any spiritual grounding or emotional connection for me.
And as a Unitarian Universalist, the African Americans carrying flaming torches, flambeux, before hooded and masked white men on horses and on floats, so that people would toss them coins, upset me.
I attended this year with joy in my heart because this was my mother’s last Mardi Gras and I wanted share it with her. Also, my aunt, brothers, their wives, and a nephew were attending; we goy to spend 5 days together, something we don’t often get to do. And my bother got me into the Pete Fountain, who is a famous New Orleans jazz clarinetist, Half Fast Walking Parade on Fat Tuesday. I decided I would be okay with the lack of spiritual enrichment that the celebration itself would offer. After all, not everything I do has to be about spiritual enrichment, does it?
I knew right away that I would fall back into old behaviors, pushing to be in front of the crowds, desperate for beads and tokens, often ignoring the beauty of the floats and pageantry. But my perceptions, experiences, and yes, even spiritual growth surprised me as the week proceeded.
The first surprise occurred before I even saw the first parade. Before parades, there are the hawkers with their wagons full of trinkets, toys, and flags. Look closely; what flags do you see? You will notice this Pride Flag, which adds five arrow-shaped lines to the six-colored Rainbow Flag, which is widely recognized as the symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. The flag includes black and brown stripes to represent marginalised LGBT communities of color, along with the colors pink, light blue and white, which are used on the Transgender Pride Flag. You will also see a Trump flag, Let’s Go Brandon, a marijuana flag, a thin blue line flag police flag, a Mardi Gras purple, green and gold flag all being sold by the same vendor, actually being sold by all the vendors I saw. Martha and I and even my politically conservative aunt talked about this unusual sight. My aunt felt it was a sign of the gumbo of cultures that co-exist and define Mardi Gras and New Orleans. Martha and I wondered at the transactional culture class right before our eyes. A sort of Laissez-faire of “If you will buy it, I don’t mind selling it.”
What was most startling to me this year was the generosity and relative politeness of the vast majority of people. This was not the Mardi Gras I remembered. I saw smiles, heard “thank you’s”, and while people held their hands out and yelled “throw me something mister”, there was generosity as so many shared their throws with those unable to be on the front-line catching beads.
This little girl was given beads and trinkets by many of the mostly White people who surrounded her, bringing her joy and a bright smile. And my mother, who couldn’t stand during the parades she attended, was offered all the beads she could wear by perfect strangers. Was this due to Mardi Gras being absent for two years during Covid? Was this due to the shortened parade routes and an excess of beads? Was this some sort of culture change? Was it the creole and jazz music everywhere? Everyone seemed joyful, dancing, and most surprisingly, showing kindness to one another. Again not the Mardi Gras I remembered. And I wondered, as I watched, could this be how our country could come back together, despite our differences of politics, color, culture. Could this Mardi Gras spirit spread like a virus around our country?
By the time Martha and I arrived at the Bacchus Ball, I had collected a number of beads and toys. But by the end of the Ball, with the Krewe throwing out everything they had left on the floats, I had collected enough beads and toys to fill a cloth bag that was four feet long and 2 and a half feet wide. It was so heavy that the bag was splitting as I struggled to carry it from the Ball back to my hotel room. As I looked at my treasure, I no longer felt the need for more, but felt an overwhelming sense of excess. What had I done? In all the fun, I had paid no notice to my own excess. I no longer felt a need to call out “throw me something mister”, instead I wondered how I could donate these to others who didn’t have any tokens of celebration. I had noticed over the week, my brother and Martha giving away beads to all the service industry workers unable to attend the parades, who had to work for a living during the celebrations. Martha gave a sales woman whom I bought a few shirts from some beads from each of the parades we attended, and she was so grateful. We kept a few beads and trinkets that held meaning for us and I donated all the rest. The hotel actually had a place for people to donate their beads. And those that were still in unopened plastic bags unopened I put in my bead sack to throw during the Half Fast Walking Parade. I felt relief and joy. And I wondered if Mardi Gras could hold some new meaning for me after all.
And so I went off to the Half Fast Walking Parade wanting to share my joy and generosity and my sense of abundance with everyone. This year’s parade theme was My Blue Heaven, thus the walkers were in blue and the wives, including my sister-in-law, dressed up as a blue angel and met us along the parade route. I found walking, as opposed to riding in a parade, was much more personal. I could approach people one on one, handing them beads, cups, toys, and doubloons. They said “Thank you” or “Happy Mardi Gras” and I said “Happy Mardi Gras” back to them. I could see the joy in their faces when I gave them something. So many big smiles and happy people. I made a point to give beads and such to people to who had none. I noticed my brother doing the same. He even put beads in empty chairs along the route for people to find when they returned to their seats. No-one pushed or shoved, despite there being no rails between us and the parade goers. All we wanted to do was share a happy experience with one another. When I ran out of beads and throws, my fellow Half Fasters gave me some, so I could continue to be part of the experience of giving. I know you might say that these were just beads and toys, but to me at the time, it was a way to connect with people I didn’t know. A way to spread joy, to momentarily lighten whatever burden or sorrow they may have been carrying. As we passed the rows of people camped and ready for the rest of the parades on that Fat Tuesday, the news of Ukraine and Covid and shootings and legal assaults on women’s and trans rights faded away for a little while. We were all in the moment, joyfully dancing, sharing, giving, receiving, being in communion for a little while. We were grateful for this moment and for the time together, even as we were also aware of our grief and pain and loss and trauma. Pain and joy don’t cancel each other out. They are the human condition. As poet William Blake said,
“It is right it should be so;
[We were] made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
We need to create joy and beauty even as we are aware of pain, grief or loss. This part of the work we do to make the world a better place for all.
Mardi Gras is not a perfect celebration and New Orleans is not a perfect city. Yes, Martha and I did have a little brush-up with some over-served patron at a bar and I saw my fair share of people who were into the greed of the moment, but these were the exceptions and soon were forgotten in the midst of the celebration. This new Mardi Gras spirit I witnessed reminded me that, no matter what the politicians and the talking heads may say, we are a country of fairly decent people, willing, for the most part, to show others a little kindness. And I hope that a little of the Mardi Gras spirit, with its joy and generosity, might make a positive difference in this divided country. Laissez les bon temps rouler.