Imagine, if you will, two awkward people chasing down a giant cock. With a procession of half-naked crawfish behind them. You also had people parodying Chick-fil-A (a lesbian was holding a sign that read Eat Mor Pussy) and calling for the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue perched on a pillar in a park downtown.
I didn’t know Mardi Gras lasts a whole month. My boyfriend and I found that out at the last minute. We ran down the street to catch the end of a mini-parade on our first trip to New Orleans. It’s a small city, so parades are relegated to streets not directly on the French Quarter. I figured there’d be a lot of people there. But not that many turned up. The big bash comes on the weekend before the official Mardi Gras: also known as Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.
Mardi Gras is part of Carnival: the most raucous Catholic-inspired celebration of the year. It’s a carryover from pagan times. Thousands of years ago, the Roman festivals of Saturnalia (for the agricultural god Saturn) and Lupercalia (Romans’ version of the Greeks’ satyr-god Pan) took place right before Lent began. There was a lot of feasting, alcohol consumption, and sexual merriment being made both to prepare for end-of-winter food shortages and to celebrate the upcoming spring.
Needless to say, these festivities were popular. Roman Catholic leaders found it easier to incorporate the pre-Christian celebrations into the pre-Lent season than to do away with them entirely. The feasting was especially popular, because at the time it was traditional to avoid rich foods such as meat and dairy for Lent. In fact the word carnelavarium means “to take away meat” in Latin.
So basically you got to spend a month living it up before atoning for it.
People have been celebrating Mardi Gras in the United States since March 2, 1699. That’s when French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville claimed a plot of land near New Orleans and named it Pointe du Mardi Gras to commemorate the holiday. (He later founded New Orleans itself.) Mardi Gras balls and parades gained popularity and became a tradition funded by New Orleans high society.
I wouldn’t have guessed that from watching the parade. It seemed very political and open to everyone. But I’ve heard about expensive costume balls still being a thing in New Orleans, so I guess the old-school Southern society traditions are still around.
Louisiana is the only state where Mardi Gras is an actual legal holiday. We all know New Orleans takes it super-seriously, but you can also find some pretty great Mardi Gras celebrations in Canada, Italy, Denmark, Germany, Mexico, and, of course, Rio de Janeiro: the Carnival capital of the world.