Mardi Gras Miracles
The New Orleans celebration seen on TV around the country differs from the local experience, where miracles - both small and large - are commonplace.
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
But most folks in the Gulf South lean more toward grace than judgment. That’s a good thing, because on the coast, Mardi Gras is celebrated for weeks. They even call it "Carnival Season" and tuck it neatly between winter and spring.
I try to explain the origins to Anna. Suppose you decide to give up drinking alcohol until Easter – which is called the Lenten period. Then, in theory, you drink all you can hold (or not) on Mardi Gras Day.
The masking came about because people in Medieval Europe - where the tradition began - wanted to hide their identities while they were doing all that indulging. It made it easier to face the neighbors the next day.
But if Mardi Gras in New Orleans has a reputation as a spectacle of decadence, it’s mostly because of television. Little wonder. The tragedies that do happen make national headlines. And face it, if you were a producer looking to boost ratings, would you film gleeful children in elf costumes catching beads or point your cameras toward Bourbon Street balconies, where women show off their private bits to the cheering throngs below?
The TV version is not the Mardi Gras I know. In the French Quarter, locals leave upper Bourbon Street to the frat boys who watch too much television. Loose and lively groups – like the Society of St. Anne or the Krewe of Cosmic Debris - prance through the neighborhood, struting their stuff to the blastings of brass bands. The elderly (marching or watching) are rejuvenated and the small children awed - at least for a few hours, until they sleep in a parent's arms, deaf to the non-stop din. A collective cloud of joy rises from the revelers and lingers over the neighborhood like a shining mist.
The whole day is a miracle in human relations, especially considering magnitude of the crowds and their various states of inebriation. There are the smaller miracles too: during each of the 35 carnivals I’ve spent in the French Quarter, I’ve been witness to many.
You might find yourself parading beside a beloved old friend you haven’t seen in years and recognize each other, despite the masks and face paint. You could be chased down by a Costume Catcher – someone who retrieves and returns bits of your ridiculous outfit that have come off while you’re dancing. There are the countless forgiving grins when beer is sloshed, or toes trampled, or when a tutu catches on a passing pitchfork.
There are the major miracles too. Like the time my friend Dawn lost her purse.
It was a little decorative thing, tied to a belt on her costume. It held the essentials – credit card, license, cash and keys. We didn’t discover the loss until late afternoon. The last place she’d noticed it was an Irish bar ten blocks away. We backtracked, eyes on asphalt shiny with spilt beer and trash and broken beads. Then we walked the same route again. The purse had simply vanished. In a queenly manner, Dawn declared she wasn’t letting her loss spoil the rest of a magnificent day. So we danced until we couldn’t.
With borrowed money, Dawn caught a cab home that night and used a hidden key to get in. There was a message on her answering machine. A hairdresser from Gretna had found the purse in Jackson Square. When Dawn retrieved her bag the next day, all the cash was still inside.
But the miracle that stands out most in my memory was the time it nearly rained on the parade. I was marching in St. Anne, dancing close to brass band. The parade was blocks long and its marchers covered the pavement between sidewalks. Storms had been threatening since early morning. For blocks, I watched as clouds covered the tops of high rises in the distance. We had made it to the 1000 block of Royal Street, right near the elementary school, when a thick sheet of rain started pushing down the street toward us. It devoured block after block as it moved in our direction.
The first spatters were already dampening costumes when the band abruptly changed its tune.
They started playing “You Are My Sunshine.”
At first I laughed, and then I began singing the words. Every costumed person in the parade around me started singing. The tourists crowding the sidewalk started singing. Party-goers on the balconies above us started singing. Hundreds of strangers were joined by good will in that moment. Our voices swelled with spontaneity and spirit. The powerful wave of sound and positive energy surged skyward.
You make me happy, when skies are gray,
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you,
Please don’t take
My sunshine away.
The rain stopped. The rest of the day was damp, but not a wash-out.
I don’t question these miracles. I simply watch for more of them each Mardi Gras day, then happily hold them to my heart, reminders that grace usually finds ways to prevail.