If you’re like me, you’ve got friends outside of New Orleans (or new to New Orleans) asking “Is it Mardi Gras already?”
Here’s a handy explanation/retort.
Dear Non-New Orleans Friends: You’ve got Mardi Gras wrong.
Many folks think Mardi Gras is the day, prior to Ash Wednesday, where everyone drinks heavily, fights for beads, and topless ladies climb greased poles on Bourbon Street.
This is only half true. (side note all of those things are available any time of the year on Bourbon but said topless, greased pole ladies are indoors and there’s a two drink minimum).
Mardi Gras is actually part of a season, Carnival season to be exact. And, we have Catholics to thank for it.
The season kicks off on the last day of Christmas and runs until the start of Ash Wednesday. It’s sort of a reverse Advent or pre-Lent, Lent. It’s an opportunity to get all the evils out of your system after celebrating the birth of Christ before we remember the uncomfortable part where he was brutally tortured and died for our sins. Sort of a Halloween night that lasts for many many nights.
It all starts with the last (12th) day of Christmas which is called the Feast of Epiphany. This is the day the three kings “of Orient” stopped traveling from afar, because they’d literally found Jesus. Hows that for first?
To some, this celebration is known as Kings Day and so we kick off carnival/Mardi Gras by a parade that night, known as 12th night.
The festivities are led by a Joan of Arc parade in which people dress like Monty Python characters and celebrate the brave life of Joan and other notable saints. Confusing? Yes. But girl power and all that.
We toast each other and stuff our faces with a lumpy doughnut-shaped cake, covered in sugar that’s green, purple, and gold with a plastic baby inside. This is called King Cake. It’s delicious. And yeah, he who finds the baby is you guessed it king. Just like the dudes in the song.
If this is all sounding a bit twisted, you’re not ready for Nola.(Nola is what we locals call New Orleans for short, only the Zatarans guy says ‘Nawlins’).
So… Kings Day. It has several parades on floats, on foot, and on streetcars and ends in fireworks. It sets off a series of amazing days and weekends in which literally dozens of parades take place.
These include the adorable, quirky, political, and raunchy but are not limited to:
• the light show productions including Harry Connick Jr. that you see on TV
• the Star Wars themed Chewbacchus parade
• the dog led Barkus parade
• the lady led parade where the trophy catch (called a throw) is a shoe
• the day drinking parade where the prized throw is a plunger
• the hipster parade where costumes are made of beans
• the miniature parade where every float is a shoe box
• the African American parade where black float riders wear black face
• the ancient parade with torches where old dudes wear hoods and ride horses
I’m not making any of this up. I’m outstandingly creative but nowhere near as creative as a century plus of compounded and refined New Orleans history.
After Kings Day the abject silliness goes on for weeks. It includes balls, drinking, king cakes, fancy dinners, more drinking, more king cakes, costumes, fancy lunches with yep drinking, and plenty of non-fancy shenanigans too (including drinks and king cake).
Carnival ends at exactly 11:59pm on Fat Tuesday, which is English for… you guessed it… Mardi Gras. Gras means fat (as in #I’mSoGras). Mardi means Tuesday so use the term “Mardi Gras Day” sparingly like when you’re trying to make a song rhyme…. or never.
Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday which of course kicks off the 40 days of pre-Easter atonement called Lent. The cops fill the streets and send everyone home. And everyone complies because, well, they’re either good Catholics or their livers would like them to be.
Now if you’re following your lunar calendar you’ll note the date of Easter floats. Yep. It’s based on the phases of the moon and not our modern calendar. How’s that for the Catholic Church being inclusive of crazy pagan traditions?
Why’s this matter when it comes to Mardi Gras? Glad you asked. It means Mardi Gras floats. Thus, the Carnival season varies in length each year.
So while it always starts on Jan 6 it can be as short as three weeks or many many more. This year is a short year ending on February 13th. That means New Orleans will have lower expenses for bead clean up and less tourism revenue.
For the rest of us lowly citizens, it will mean we will party our butts off till midnight, go to church to get blessed, and then drag our boos out for Valentine’s dinner this year. Valentine was also a Saint and thus Catholic but that’s another story.
So to answer the question, “is it Mardi Gras already?” Yep, and it will be until Valentine’s Day. Which… sadly… means a compact season for us.
The question then will be “is it over already?”