Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. – Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic
It’s just not possible to explain Mardi Gras to those who have never lived in the New Orleans area, because they absolutely will not get it. It’s not simply a matter of their never having experienced it, because mere attendance won’t put one into the proper state of mind; I daresay I could sit on a Vieux Carré balcony on Fat Tuesday, guessing whether each person who passed below was a local or a visitor, and achieve over 90% accuracy. It’s not simply that the visitors are the ones who are either stiff as boards or wildly out of control, nor the fact that most of them don’t wear costumes (I rarely did, either), nor the fact that most of the really obnoxious and/or disgusting drunks are hundreds or thousands of kilometers from home. All of those things are merely symptoms of the same general aura of Not-Getting-It-ness which manifests itself either in the belief that the holiday is just another excuse to get totally bombed out of one’s skull, or in that ultimate statement of Carnival Cluelessness, “How can a woman expose herself for a string of plastic beads?” Though the festival has a Christian excuse, it is (like Christmas) wholly pagan; indeed, much of its symbolism and customs have come down through the centuries from the Roman Saturnalia and even older celebrations, and Yule gives way seamlessly to Carnival on King Day. Carnival is also like Christmas in another important way; it is not a day but a whole season, and having the right spirit is far more important than the observation of any single ritual or combination of traditions. A person who goes through the motions during Yuletide but doesn’t have the “Christmas spirit” will not have a true experience of the festival, and the exact same thing is true of Mardi Gras. In a way, the spirit of Mardi Gras is the spirit of New Orleans, and anyone who is unwilling or unable to appreciate her style will never, ever be able to appreciate her signature holiday.