SOME HURRICANES WON’T GO AWAY (But New Orleans is still New Orleans)
Our area’s struggle to rebuild is being played out in the national press. The other day, the New York Times printed an editorial noting the critical point in time at which New Orleans finds itself. The City and State need to devise a real blueprint for the future, but all efforts will be meaningless unless the federal government is willing to not just rebuild, but improve the levee system to withstand a category-five hurricane.
Rebuilding the physical city is only half the battle for New Orleans. The other half is to recapture the culture of the City. No other place has the unique mixture of music, food, and soul of New Orleans. And no other City celebrates Mardi Gras the way we do. Some of the traditions were imported from elsewhere (primarily Mobile, Alabama), but New Orleans is the place everyone thinks of when Mardi Gras is mentioned.
Mardi Gras is the culmination of the liturgical season of Epiphany. Starting on January 6th (i.e., twelfth night of Christmas), various organizations in town start the celebration with balls and banquets that will last through the season that ends on the day before Ash Wednesday. (Mardi Gras literally translates as “Fat Tuesday,” meaning it is the last day for fatted meat before entering the Lenten season of penitential fasting.) Technically, only the last day is Mardi Gras, and the rest of the season is referred to as “Carnival.” But modern usage has now bestowed the tile of Mardi Gras on the entire season.
Carnival kicks into high gear in the week-and-a-half before the big day, and the streets are filled with parades put on by private clubs called “krewes.” We line the streets to listen to high school bands play with a beat that could not be reproduced anywhere else, and to catch beads and trinkets thrown by float riders. We place our small children in home-made seats atop step ladders so they can see, and more importantly be seen by the riders who will shower the youngsters with goodies.
The parades form the centerpiece of the celebration, but they are not the whole story. On Mardi Gras itself, “marching” clubs make their way downtown from the Irish Channel, stopping at various watering holes. The “Indian tribes” of the African American community make their own way through the streets, wearing feathered costumes that rank among the finest folk art in the nation, and raising their voices in chants that helped to form the unique brand of New Orleans funk that contributed to the development of rock and roll.
And everywhere, throughout the season, families and friends gather simply to share a good time in New Orleans style.
In 1979, the parades were cancelled due to a police strike in New Orleans, but Mardi Gras went on in a hundred different ways all over the City. That was the year we realized that Mardi Gras was not something we did, but was part of who we are. As we say down here, you know you’re a New Orleanian if you think purple, green, and gold (the Mardi Gras colors) actually look good together.
Many people -- including a large number of “refugees” who have not yet been able to return home -- are saying that New Orleans cannot afford Mardi Gras this year when so much of the City needs fixing. It’s an easy argument to make, and it makes perfect sense. That is, it makes perfect sense for anyplace other than New Orleans.
Obviously, things will be different. Mayor Nagin, who understands all too well that celebrating as we have before makes little sense, has ordered a scaled-back Carnival season as far as parades go. But if we had no parades at all, New Orleans will still observe Mardi Gras. Chris Rose, the great columnist for the Times-Picayune explains it all better than I can. Before you say you can’t understand why we would want to celebrate anything, read what he has to say. Let me know if you don’t understand all of the local references, and I’ll gladly explain.