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It s marvelous, magical, mirthful, magnificent. It s Mardi Gras. After Christmas each year, the people of southern Louisiana begin their celebration of Carnival, an exuberant explosion of parades and parties that reaches its grand climax on Mardi Gras. Many people think that Mardi Gras is just another name for Carnival, but the terms have different meanings. Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday , refers to only one day.
Carnival, on the other hand, refers to the entire period from Twelfth Night (January 6) until midnight on Mardi Gras. Because Mardi Gras comes exactly forty-six days before Easter, it can fall on any Tuesday from February 3 to March 9. This year it is on February 11. Mardi Gras is not just something to watch, it s something to be part of. You can pretend to be someone different and live a fantasy for a day. It s a time for children and grown-ups alike. An entire family can dress crazy and not stand out in a crowd. It s a time for people of all ages, races, and religions to come together in a spirit of goodwill. When people celebrate Mardi Gras, they are carrying on a tradition that dates back to ancient times. Spring festivals were held to ensure the fertility of animals and crops. Mardi Gras came to America when some hardy French explorers landed near the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1699. Their leader, Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d Iberville, noticed that it was March 3. Back home, people were celebrating Mardi Gras, so he named the spot Pointe du Mardi Gras in honor of the day.
By the time Spain took possession of Louisiana in 1766, Mardi Gras was an established tradition . But the Spanish banned the custom of wearing masks on the street, and Mardi Gras was driven indoors where it was celebrated privately by the Creoles (the descendants of early French and Spanish settlers). In 1803, two years after taking it back from Spain, France sold Louisiana to the United States. The Americans descended on New Orleans. Creoles did not like the newcomers, whose language and manners were different from their own. The Americans, on the other hand, didn t approve of the French-speaking Creoles and their customs. They tried to suppress Mardi Gras, but the Creoles persisted and, in 1838, organized the first real street parade. In the end, Mardi Gras worked its magic on the newcomers. Comus, the oldest, most secretive Carnival organization, invented the word krewe , and set the pattern of choosing a krewe name from mythology. With its parade of thematic floats, a private ball, mock royalty, and secret membership, Comus gave a form to Mardi Gras that has endured ever since.
Today there are more than one hundred krewes. Every year, each krewe chooses a King and Queen to preside over its activities. Being chosen is considered a great honor. Even though it means wearing tights in public, there is hardly a man in New Orleans who would turn down the chance to be king. And, of course, all young girls dream of becoming a queen. Some famous krewes are Rex, Bacchus, Endymion, and Zulu. But the krewes are not the only organizations involved with Mardi Gras. There are also Indians! Tribes with such names as the Wild Magnolias, the Golden Eagles, the Yellow Pocahontas, and the White Eagles parade through their neighborhoods dancing to hypnotic music and hand-clapping rhythms.. King cakes are oval confections decorated with carnival colors. Each cake contains a small baby doll to symbolize the finding of baby Jesus by the Magi.
Whoever finds the baby must host the next party. King cake parties are so popular that more than 500,000 king cakes are consumed every year in the New Orleans area. Although New Orleanians love parties, they love parades even more. Beginning several weeks before Mardi Gras, nearly seventy large parades take place around New Orleans. The parades feature large, tractor-drawn floats that sometimes tower two stories high–making Carnival in New Orleans the world-famous spectacle it is today.
Most Carnival parades follow the same pattern. The largest parades may have as many as five thousand participants. Marching bands, dancers, clowns and motorcycle units all participate in the parades. Every parade is the result of a great deal of work by many people. As soon as Mardi Gras is over, krewe members make plans for the next year s parades. It takes a full year to complete a float . The work is done in massive warehouses called dens . In most places, people stand calmly on the sidelines, chatting with one another as they enjoy the passing parade. But not in New Orleans. There, float riders are greeted by roaring crowds shouting Throw me something, mister! .
Maskers on the floats respond by flinging beads and other trinkets into the sea of upstretched hands while the crowd grabs and scrambles to catch the trinkets. The trinkets include strings of cheap beads, Frisbees, stuffed animals, bikini underwear, giant toothbrushes, collector cards, plastic cups and an assortment of doubloons. However, the most coveted throw of all is a decorated coconut, symbol of Zulu. The pleasure of participating in Carnival costs krewe members nearly $35 million every year. They spend 18.6 million on throws alone. Float members have no trouble explaining their generosity. When they look into the crowd and see the happy faces and the wonderful mood, they know they are doing something good. The governments of New Orleans and surrounding communities issue parade permits, coordinate parade routes, provide police and sanitation services, but they do not contribute any funding. Commercial and political advertising are banned. There s no such thing as an authorized Mardi Gras logo.
Mardi Gras belongs to everyone. But like Cinderella, when the clock strikes twelve, Carnival is over and the streets must be cleared. Midnight comes, ushering in Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season of penitence and fasting. Everyone is tired but the spirit of Mardi Gras lingers in the air. Although more than a million people come together to celebrate Carnival, there are few incidents to disturb the peace. That s because, with an instinct bred into their unique culture, the people of Southern Louisiana share their courteous, generous spirit with everyone at Carnival. Just as throwing beads and trinkets reminds us that we all have gifts for one another, the spirit of Mardi Gras shows how people of all ages, races, religions and backgrounds can get along together. So, come on down. Sit on my front porch. Have some red beans and rice. We ll pass a good time! It s America s biggest party.
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