Whenever people ask what’s my favorite holiday, I always reply “Mardi Gras”. Even now after I’ve lived outside of New Orleans for longer than I lived there, it’s still my favorite.
When people think of Mardi Gras if haven’t grown up celebrating it, they think of public drunkenness, women flashing their breasts, and total carnal debauchery. And Yes – there is that. But when I think of Mardi Gras, I think of magic.
I think of wandering down quiet early morning Irish Channel streets toward the parade route and softly hearing Pete Fountain’s Half Fast Walking Band before they emerge out of the fog. They play for a while. We follow them before our paths diverge, and they disappear onto a side street like a dream.
Mardi Gras is magic, and I don’t just mean that poetically. There is something about the celebration that is pure city magic and exists in the overlapping space between the material and the imaginal worlds. Its symbols speak to the underlying foundation of magic in all reality as its traditions call back to ancient festivals.
If you’re not familiar with Mardi Gras, it is a weeks long celebration of parades and parties held in New Orleans before the looming shadow of Lent. The season roughly starts at Epiphany and culminates on Mardi Gras Day aka Fat Tuesday – the day before Ash Wednesday. In Roman Catholic tradition, Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting, contemplation of mortality, and beginning of Lent. Many devotees give up something for Lent as a sacrifice.
The ritual of Mardi Gras is centered in social gathering, feasting, and celebration. There is an awareness that Lent is coming, so indulge in your vices while you still have time.
Timing and repetition is important in this grand ritual. Krewes (community organizations that parade) schedule their parades on the same day and time as in years past and traverse the same parade routes with very little deviation over decades. For instance, Bacchus has been parading on the Sunday night before Mardi Gras since 1968.
Families and friends often gather together for the same parades year after year. This rooting of both time and place is potent magic. The power of the ritual becomes deeper and greater with every new layer. The echoes of years upon years of the parade are felt long after the crowds disperse.
Unlike most other parades, Mardi Gras parades have “throws” – treasures that the parade riders throw to the crowds. Traditionally, these throws are Beads, Cups, and Doubloons (Coins).
Cups and Coins are present at almost every Mardi Gras parade. These symbols of the tarot are there right in the middle of it all. Cups are so very apt – Mardi Gras is a celebration filled with cups overflowing, emotions, heart, family, friends, and love for the city and community. Coins – are what the city ritual is for – treasure, riches, and prosperity for the city and its inhabitants.
There is a traditional call and response to this. As the float passes, you yell “Throw me something, mister (or ma’am)” and the treasures rain down. It’s an odd feeling to be standing there close to the floats, the riders passing above you and in the crush of the crowd with your arms up to receive. Your senses are heightened so that you can hear the clink of doubloons hitting the street, and your reflexes are so swift that you can catch something right out of the air.
This is pure prosperity city magic – laying routes of coins and abundance right down on the streets of the city and into the hands of its inhabitants.
Important to note that the Cups and Coins are present, but not Batons or Swords. Work and Conflict are not welcome at Mardi Gras. Although often there is a frenzy and fights will occur over these treasures, but then the next float comes up and the conflict is forgotten for the moment.
The gods are honored at the parades. Many Krewes and their parades are named after ancient deities and figures from myth and legend of different cultures and traditions. Bacchus, named after the god of wine, feasting, and revelry is one of the most popular parades in the calendar. There is also Orpheus (co-founded by musician, Harry Connick, jr.), Thoth, Poseidon, Nefertiti, and Isis – among many others.
Parading under the name of a particular deity honors that deity. I imagine that they smile down at the revelry that surrounds the parade and the big crowds full of dancing and excitement. Not to imply that people going to Isis or Orpheus parades attend with the intention of honoring them. That’s rarely the case. But they are gathering under the banner of that entity which does have some significance.
There is also the embodiment of the deity honored in at least one of the parades. Most parades have a King or Queen who rides on the first float. For Bacchus, that honor is given to a celebrity who is then “Bacchus” for that year’s parade. Doubloons with the face of that person and the theme of the parade are coveted throws. Bob Hope, William Shatner, Dick Clark, Nicholas Cage, and Will Ferrell have all had the honor of being “Bacchus”. This year it’s Robin Thicke.
Intentional or not, by recalling the names of the deities and honoring them these parades facilitate a relationship with them and the possibility of receiving blessings if they are pleased.
Taken in aggregate, the dozens of parades during Mardi Gras season have a larger purpose. All of them honor celebration for celebration’s sake.
“Les allez bon temps roule!” Is a city motto that means “Let the good times roll!” The Mardi Gras season as a whole simply celebrates Joy, Fun, Good Times, and Camaraderie. It celebrates indulging in everything that brings people pleasure. Most often these pleasures are the simple ones – good food, good wine, good music and sharing that with friends and family.
During Mardi Gras, there is a sense of laying down your burdens for that one day. Schools and most businesses are closed. Parades block most city streets. Might as well join the party and forget about your troubles for a while.
Mardi Gras is the ultimate guilt-free cheat day. There is no fasting on Mardi Gras. Sacrifice and self denial are for the day after. Mardi Gras day honors the sheer pleasure of being human and recognizes that there is a time for indulgence. It recognizes that it should not be shameful to honor ones desires. It’s what makes life sweet.
It never ceases to amaze me that the city of New Orleans takes out one day a year for its citizens to remember this and to share in it.
Although it’s been many years since I’ve been to Mardi Gras, I still honor it. I wear my beads proudly on the day. Sometimes, I’ll decorate the house in Mardi Gras flags of purple, green, and gold. (My neighbors think it’s a sports thing.)
I order King Cake and share it with my family and friends. I tell them about the last time I was at a parade with my mom and how we met a group of young men visiting from out of town who were eating boiled crawfish out of a black trash bag. They eagerly shared some with us. (It was delicious.) I tell them of giving my grandfather the doubloons that I caught for his collection and how we’d look at each one.
On Mardi Gras day, we’ll have our favorite foods and extra dessert. After dinner we’ll listen to Mardi Gras classics, and sink into the magic of the sweet life and hopes for another year of prosperity and good times.