My upbringing was laid back Catholic, and so I don’t recall Shrove Tuesday ever being a really big deal. I opted to give up something relatively benign during the season from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, and I remember my weekly catechism teacher telling us that we were supposed to pray more during Lent.
My ambivalent attitude toward the season of penance changed the year I moved to New Orleans. There I learned that Mardi Gras isn’t just an evening of costumed mayhem and bedlam. It’s actually an entire month designed for revelry leading up to a period of sobriety.
My Mardi Gras experience was shimmering gold, brilliant green and royal purple. It was feathered masks and jumbo beads and sweet drinks laced with trouble in between periods of study and structure. It was a time to play when the rest of the country sat tucked inside, mid-winter, wishing for signs of spring. It was marching bands and elaborate floats and flirtation with krewe members who tempted my friends and me with their pretty throws, shiny colored beads, trinkets and plastic doubloons. It was simply fabulous.
Granted, the debauchery of the fraternities that pile into caravans and literally spill and tumble and dance down Bourbon Street in the Crescent City wasn’t so fabulous. The crowds on that particular avenue cause those of us who are petite to search for a hand to hold to avoid getting lost in the madding crowd, because it’s impossible to see what’s going on, and even the most mild mannered among us contemplated tossing off her top. It was a little scary to be in the midst of this scene.
It’s a scene that could get kind of ugly.
But in other parts of the city, I witnessed small children and wise centenarians experience sheer delight as they reached out to catch endless strands of colorful beads being tossed from floats. Costumes dazzled and parades entertained. Pitchers of Bloody Marys, splashed liberally with hot sauce and spiked with celery, were freshly made in the morning. We emptied our glasses by noon before breaking to anticipate even greater spectacle as the krewes marching through our neighborhood became ever more enthusiastic. We were addicted to parades.
The festivities didn’t end till sun up the next day.
I was a graduate student the year I lived in New Orleans. I lived with two other students in a tumble down, non-air conditioned (except bedrooms, or we would have melted in our sleep), low rent apartment in an old house in the Garden District. We lived just down the street from the writer Anne Rice’s Greek Revival style home. I never went inside, but often ran curiously by its stone façade, envisioning antique galleries and imagining dark coffins placed in neat shadowy corners.
As the sun rose, street cleaners scrubbed away the evidence of the day before, and I opened my eyes to invite in the sobering dawn of Ash Wednesday.