By the time you read this, residents in four states along the Gulf Coast will have put the final period to the 2007 Mardi Gras season. You see, today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Yesterday was Fat Tuesday and was celebrated in fine style in cities from Pensacola, Florida to New Orleans, Louisiana and beyond.
Mardi Gras has been a part of my life for so long that I forget how very regional it is in nature. While there are similar celebrations all over the world, ranging from Carnivale in Brazil to the "Mother" Mardi Gras in France, it seems that here in America, the festivities have never expanded much beyond where they began. Exactly where that origin is remains to this day in dispute (some New Orleanians believe that their city is the birthplace of the American Mardi Gras, while the majority of Mobilians are confident that the first celebration took place on March 3, 1699, in Mobile). Either way, both agree that the tradition was brought by the French. And, equally as important to the economic stability of both cities, today's Mardi Gras means huge tourism dollars during the wild days of revelry that occur every year somewhere between January and March.
I know that Partial Observer readers hail from all over the country and may not have ever experienced anything quite as crazy as our Mardi Gras, so let me explain. Occurring exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday each year, Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) in the Mobile area means parades, balls, school holidays, and fun! And, it doesn't all happen on just one day. In fact, the parades begin about three weeks before the actual Mardi Gras Day and roll through the streets of one community or another on a daily basis. Some organizations sponsor both parades and balls immediately following; others just have balls or parties of a more laidback variety.
The word "ball" in reference to a dance is probably easily visualized by most. It's exactly what it sounds like it is, but we have rather formal rules even in this century. All the balls in this area require costume de rigeur, meaning the men in attendance must wear what my husband fondly calls his penguin suit. More descriptively, it consists of white tie and black tails and I think all the men actually look quite handsome. For the ladies, gowns to the floor must be worn. Those requirements are for the guests of the members, who themselves wear something quite different and completely at odds with the sophisticated attire of their invitees. Whether the organization is all male, all female, or a combination of the two, the members usually wear a costume in bright, vivid colors with all manner of sequins, jewels, feathers, etc. to accent the garish look. All societies require that their members keep their identities secret while in public, thus vibrant-hued masks frequently become the focus of each member's outfit.
For most, however, the ball is not the centerpiece of Mardi Gras. Instead, it's the numerous parades that attract the throngs of tourists and locals alike, night after night. I've attended hundreds of them myself and still can't quite put my finger on what it is that makes them so irresistible. So, I decided several years ago I would try to figure it out from the other side – that is to say, I would become a participant rather than a spectator, at least for one parade.
Here's what I already knew from observation:
The parades can range in length and scope from four or five large floats to nearly twenty, each separated by a marching or equestrian unit. The floats generally follow a central theme which varies from year to year for each group, but most groups also have an identifying float that leads their procession annually. For example, in Mobile, the group known as the Mystic Stripers begins with a float of a zebra and another of a tiger, signifying their stripes.
Each float carries twenty or more riders, all of whom are brightly costumed and throwing all manner of items off the sides of the float to eager viewers. Known as "throws" to the members, the most popular items in Mobile-area parades are plastic beads and moon pies, but also include plastic cups, soft soccer balls and footballs, Frisbees, peanuts, and stuffed animals. Over the years, some throws have been banned because of damage to property and individuals – hard balls, for example.
Typically, each member will prepare a special bag of treats for each friend or relative they expect to see along the parade route. A number of years ago, one of the older parading societies in Mobile, the Mystics of Time, asked me to edit and publish a book in honor of their 50th anniversary. The historian for the group told me of one 1950's parade rider, a businessman who positioned his family in front of his own downtown store, becoming a little overzealous when making sure these goodies found their intended target. As his float turned the corner where his shop was located, he wound up for a good strong toss so the bag would reach his kids – only to let it fly straight through his own plate-glass storefront window!
It has to rain really, really hard for a parade to be postponed, because there obviously can be no parades after Fat Tuesday. If a monsoon occurs, there will frequently be a double length parade the next night – the originally scheduled group goes first, followed by the poor rainouts from the evening before. This is preferable to parading in the light rain, because turnout is lower and throws sometimes wind up in gutters and puddles rather than hands and take-home sacks.
And, finally, my last street-level observation is that the roar of the crowd goes up and back down again as each float passes. Cries of "Throw me something, Mister!" and "Moon pie, moon pie!" permeate the air and are rewarded with tons of throws raining down into outstretched hands vying for attention. Daddies hold toddlers on their shoulders to try to give them a fighting chance against teens and adults. It's a festive, exciting air and most people are polite and joyous, although from time to time skirmishes ensue over a 25-cent moon pie.
And now, from the inside looking out:
The roar of the crowd becomes a separate entity, dominating your every action. That roar does not go up and down with the passing of each float; it stays constant and becomes a wall of sound. You realize how hard it is to keep your balance on the second story of a moving float as it lurches and winds it way down the parade route, especially without holding on for the majority of the time. You also realize how fruitless all your past years of crying "moon pie" are to people who are holding hands full of peanuts – it's impossible to respond to individual requests, because by the time you can find different throws, your float has traveled a block down the street. Your total focus becomes on throwing all of that stuff you've so carefully procured, prepared and loaded into the crowd so that you don't have to unload anything at the end of the route.
Most floats have riders positioned at different levels, and usually the top, higher perches are most coveted. However, the eyes of the crowd seem to focus on those at the lower level and thus it's harder to make a one-to-one throw occur from the higher levels. It's also very rewarding to be able to lean over from the lower levels and put a special, soft stuffed animal directly into the hands of a two-year-old. The challenge at the top is to reach the viewers perched on second-floor balconies - it's hard to do with beads, but a moon pie, frisbee or football can work out just fine. A successful transfer is met with clenched, pumping fists and victory yelps from both parties - rider and catcher.
I learned most parade-goers simply yell indiscriminately at the entire float. Take a tip from an experienced catcher: pick out one rider on each float, point at them, make eye contact if at all possible, and wait. They will reward you with a string of goodies because it's so much fun to throw it to someone who actually catches it. You can yell if you want, but they probably won't be able to hear you over anyone else. My family routinely gets aggravated when I can't hear or spot them, but the simple fact is, I am but one of two dozen women on the float with the same name – Mom! If you really want to get pelted with a lot of stuff, make a clever sign to hold up as each float passes. One that caught my attention this year was "It's my birthday!" How can you resist that? Other people bring fish nets or laundry hampers to hold up high above the heads of the crowd. That's great, but I really like the clever kid who drew a bulls' eye target and wrote beside it, "See if you can hit this!"
The fact is, riding on a Mardi Gras float is a surreal experience. For a brief hour, it feels a little like what it must feel like to be a rock star. It's fun, it's exciting, it's downright thrilling. It's also exhausting, but there is still the ball to attend! The association members have but a short while to recover between disembarking from their respective floats and welcoming their hundreds of guests to their ball.
I was having trouble getting in the spirit this year when a friend mentioned something that I have thought myself. She said, "You know, sometimes I wonder why we're all screaming for all that junk. All we're going to do is let the kids eat the moon pies until they get sugar highs and pack the beads in the attic until Christmas, when we'll notice them, then throw them out to get ready for Mardi Gras again. I hate all that money we waste!"
That is certainly one point of view, one that is shared by many. But, with every cynical thought like that comes the realization that entire industries are built up around this celebration. While there are no exact numbers, estimates place the sale of Mardi Gras beads at approximately $500 million annually. The sale of moon pies is not limited to just Mardi Gras season, but sales spike in the weeks preceding the season, adding to the overall profits of the company. There are float builders and artists who work year round to prepare the beautiful, magnificent structures that have to be stable enough to hold dozens of rowdy riders, yet still appear airy and light enough to "float" down the street. Benefits trickle down to the host community in a number of ways, including payments from the organization to local high school bands for their appearances. Area hotels are filled to capacity, often with organization members who want to be closer to the scene for the event and not have to face traffic afterwards. Other regions of the country even benefit in an unexpected way: many Mardi-Gras weary locals take advantage of school holidays to take their families on ski trips, which is something you can't do here. Thus, the tourism dollars get spread all around.
If you haven't experienced Mardi Gras in person, make plans to do so at least once in your lifetime. You might be the most conservative person in the world, yet you'll find yourself drawn into the music and mystique within seconds – you'll be waving your hands in the air and yelling at each float, then dancing on the sidewalk with the rhythmic drum beats in between.
For today, I'm glad it's Ash Wednesday and life can get back to normal for a bit. But, come next January, I'm sure I'll be in the stores looking for my next goofy accessory, sorting beads by length and color, and praying for another beautiful, cloudless night!
Teachings of a Three Year Old... Turned Tyke,
by Hal Evan Caplan.
A father learns from the wisdom of his toddler.