New Orleans’s spiritual journey into decadence culminated with Mardi Gras this past Tuesday. In and around New Orleans, 66 parades shut down the city on 13 days of merriment over almost two months. Along each parade route, hundreds of thousands flooded the streets, communing, drinking, and catching Krewe-specific “throws” tossed at natives, transplants and tourists alike who prize them like treasure. By now, the revelry and noise has returned to normal for New Orleans.
The season begins with King’s day, the Catholic day celebrating the gifts of the Magi to baby Jesus. It ends with Lent, a time for self-denial and repression of the worldly lower appetites, emulating Jesus’s 40 days in the desert. Like any good Catholic holiday, it has pagan origins. Lupercalia, a festival associated with Spring or fertility or protection from wolves or the founding of Rome, depending on your source, is frequently named its ancestor. Whatever it was, it likely involved feasting, drinking, and carnal behavior, the very appetites repressed in the Lenten season.
At its heart, Mardi Gras is indulgence. Every king and queen are lavishly decorated in pluming feathers and gaudy regalia. Every parade float is adorned by bright lights and colorful, crafted figureheads. The smoky, sweet smells of Barbecue and thick, oily scent of fried food smothers the streets. Music thumps and blares in rattling cars, impromptu DJ booths, and massive speaker systems from the floats themselves. Roads are closed by police or by swelling crowds. Paradegoers and Krewe members alike dance under the sun, moon, and stars.
Indulgence is no easy task, though. Each new day is a slingshot between exhaustion and jubilation. King Cakes and fatty, fried food cascade into indigestion and blood-sugar bombs. Countless spirits imbibed induce vicious hangovers, depleted bodies to scream for rejuvenation. Yelling, jumping and nabbing beads for hours exacts its toll on the body. With all the decadence comes a price and the city finally succumbs. The days, weeks, and months spent gorging on gluttonous amounts of food, drink, and revelry surrenders to the Lenten season, asceticism and reflection.
The duality of decadent Mardi Gras and the ascetic Lenten season transforms the former into an even grander spectacle and the latter into a virtuous moral cleansing. The festivities are exhausting. A time for self-denial is welcome, if only to be able to sleep without heartburn and hangovers.
Finally, when the last parade has passed and the massive months-long party has ceased, the city is hushed. Tired, sobering revelers find peace in normalcy, in stillness. Their priests mark their foreheads with ashen crosses, and they embark on an ascetic, spiritual journey of self-denial. The frenetic pace now quelled, they begin a penance, if you will, to atone for their sins of indulgence and decadence.