What You Never Knew You Didn’t Know – Mardi Gras & New Orleans Culture Edition

Words and Images by Anthony Maranise
  Photo Above: Source

Let’s go ahead and address the elephant in the room, that is, the title you just read above. I know what you’re thinking… probably the same as our creative editor when I told her the title of this piece. She did a double-take. So, yes indeed, I know the title sounds slightly confusing. Bear with me because I have a point, I promise.

On Magazine Street (Uptown) in beautiful New Orleans is a little shop where I’ve bought gifts for my friends before. This shop is called Fleurty Girl, and despite its name, it actually sells some pretty awesome New Orleans and Cajun-inspired gifts for persons of all genders. Outside this store used to be a chalkboard sign and I’ll never forget what it said one afternoon as I strolled by, mango margarita in hand. Quoting the great New Orleans jazz pioneer, Dr. John, the sign simply read:

“In New Orleans, you can’t separate nothing from nothing. Everything becomes part of one funky gumbo.”

The culture, the way-of-life, the joie-de-vivre, the food, and yes, even the speed of life is a little different, a little more “easy” in New Orleans, often so aptly nicknamed, “The Big Easy.” With all that said, I return to my title of this piece: What You Never Knew You Didn’t Know… So, if you never knew that you didn’t know something, what is this knowledge then? Philosophers would have an answer for this rooted in epistemology, but most of us would simply agree that never knowing that we didn’t know something is basically a whole lot of nothing.

However…

After you know it, it becomes known and thus, something else. But, what? The list that follows this semi-rum soaked, rambling introduction in the mold of the great New Orleans writers I so admire, reveals that something else. That nothing we never knew now “becomes part of one funky gumbo” of knowledge.

            Laissez les bon temps roulez!

1. Mardi Gras is known by most as a day for extravagance: lavish parties, music, liquor, parades, occasional nakedness, but the festival itself doesn’t only last on the ‘Mardi’ (Tuesday, in French) before Ash ‘Mercredi’ (Wednesday in French), but instead lasts an entire season. It begins on the Catholic Feast of the Epiphany (usually twelve days after Christmas Day) and concludes, technically, at midnight on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

2. Because Mardi Gras is so linked to other religious celebrations, it also has religious origins rooted in French Catholicism. Since Louisiana was founded by the French Le Moyne brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, in the late 17th century, the New Orleans area, and the vast majority of the state of Louisiana for that matter, maintains this close connection to Catholicism. Catholics, on Ash Wednesday, begin Lent, a season of spiritual preparation for the Easter season which celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus. Lent is a time of repentance, awareness of sins, reflection on what sin cost humanity, namely, the life of God incarnate, prayer and fasting. Thus, for the 40 days that Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday until Holy Thursday, Catholics generally “give up” a negative habit or more closely immerse themselves in prayer and acts of bodily mortification like fasting. Mardi Gras, then, the season and the day before Lent begins is an opportunity to “indulge” before the intensity of the season of repentant-preparation.

3. Pope Gregory XIII made Mardi Gras an official Christian holiday in 1582.

4. Most are familiar with traditional Mardi Gras colors – purple, gold, and green – but most have no idea that these colors also have spiritual significance. Purple, the color of royalty, represents justice and the role of Christ as King and just judge of His people; gold, power and the all-powerful nature (omnipotence) of Christ, and finally, green represents faith, much of which can be found in and around New Orleans and throughout the entire state of Louisiana. While these color meanings are distinctly Catholic in origin from the earliest centuries of the faith, the Mardi Gras colors were actually officially codified by the Krewe of Rex in 1892.

5. Mardi Gras is a state-recognized holiday in Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama. Just about the only things open will be bars, restaurants, hotels, some shops, and essential services like hospitals. Get your cash for the weekend before you go because banks will be closed. The other states, quite frankly, need to get on-board!

6. The Fleur-de-Lis (literally, “lily flower,” in French) has become so mainstream. Nearly everyone is familiar with it, especially as the logo for the New Orleans Saints NFL team, but also as a general symbol of the city of New Orleans, Acadiana, and France. However, most do not know that before this symbol was ever used by any of the aforementioned, it was used to express belief in the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in Christianity. If we look at the Fleur-de-Lis, we can see the three petals of the lily, and that they are held together by a band or a ring. The largest petal in the center represents God, the Father; the smaller to the right represents God, the Son (Jesus) who “sits at the right hand of God the Father” (according to the Nicene Creed), and finally the smaller petal to the left represents God, the Holy Spirit. The band unites and holds all three persons together because the Trinity, while three separate and equally important persons, is always One God.

7. The New Orleans metro-area alone has about 47,000 hotel rooms. More than 95% of these are filled for each Mardi Gras weekend annually. Mardi Gras weekend is the Saturday and Sunday before the festival, including “Lundi Gras” or Fat Monday, in French, as well as the actual Mardi Gras day. If each hotel room can hold 2 persons (though we know some hold more and that most persons will pack them full if possible), we can estimate that the Mardi Gras weekend alone brings in 94,000 visitors to the city. That, coupled with locals and regional persons within driving distance of New Orleans, equals well over 100,000 at any given point throughout the weekend in a city that already has a population of over 1,100,000 (metro-area included).

8. New Orleans generates in excess of 300 million dollars (direct & indirect) revenue per year during the Mardi Gras weekend alone; and more than 840 million throughout the entire Mardi Gras season, according to a study by the University of New Orleans.

9. Revelers (what party-goers are often called in New Orleans) wear masks at Mardi Gras parades, festivals, etc., to protect their identities from other onlookers who may witness behavior from them which is, well, let’s just say… uncharacteristically out of context.

10. Environmentalists, hold on tight! Each year, more than 25 million pounds of used, unwanted, forgotten, or broken Mardi Gras beads are thrown away. However, some places are now recycling the beads or making some pretty amazing pieces of art out of them.

11. New Orleans locals can vouch for the fact that “flashing” is not now nor has it ever been a legitimate Mardi Gras tradition. A city ordinance actually subjects “throwers” or parade-float-attendants to fine and/or imprisonment should they ask a person to “bare it all” for beads or any other trinkets. This misconception comes from the fact that most New Orleans outsiders concentrate their coverage of Mardi Gras only to the French Quarter, specifically to the now infamous, “Bourbon Street.” New Orleans is a big city… so, trust my advice and take what I say to heart when I tell you this: Go exploring the city. There is so much more off Bourbon Street and outside the French Quarter.

12. Okay, this one isn’t immediately so surprising… More liquor is consumed on Mardi Gras weekend than at any other time of year in New Orleans. St. Patrick’s Day (which ironically always occurs during Lent) is the second largest time of year for alcohol consumption. Pace yourselves, people.

13. Though the law was established in the early days of the city’s history in order to deter potentially racially or culturally discriminatory behavior during the festival, it is still illegal to ride a Mardi Gras float without wearing some sort of mask or costume. Whether this law is enforced or not at this point is another story.

14. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the surrounding gulf coast region. The following year, though there was much uncertainty as to whether it would or not, Mardi Gras went on as usual.

15. Mardi Gras began in the United States in 1703… but not in New Orleans. In fact, the Le Moyne brothers originally founded the capital of French Louisiana in what is present day Mobile, Alabama. By 1720, Biloxi was the French Louisiana capital and Mardi Gras moved with it until the capital reached New Orleans in 1723… and though the capital of Louisiana would change over and again, the great festival seemed to stick in New Orleans. We’re glad it did!


Anthony Maranise is an editor with The Galleon, a frequent visitor to the city of New Orleans, and a lover of all things Cajun.

The facts presented in this piece, except where hyperlinked, are attributable to the knowledge of the author.

Posted by Editorial Board at 12:24 PM

The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.

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