When I returned from Mardi Gras I proudly showed off my 20+ lbs of multi-colored beads, my Zulu coconut and my Orpheus doubloon heroically snatched from mid-air, as if they were treasures from the Orient; Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. I was met with blank stares, or I could see people thought I was a mad man. And yet that box of cheap beads means a lot to me.
I never made it to Mardi Gras as a youth and as a supposedly responsible parent it had no appeal. So it was with some trepidation that my wife and I informed some friends and coworkers that we were taking our children to Mardi Gras on the spur of the moment. We left Saturday and drove all night. I waited on the street for the Sunday night parade as my family rested in our hotel room.
The first float came into view. The actor Val Kilmer as King Bacchus was waving to the adoring crowd. Behind that float was another band, then another float. This was the Bacchus Parade: 31 floats, over 1200 Krewe members and 31 bands. I stood on Canal Street, where the parade route makes a turn, and looked down St. Charles Ave. A float with a huge head of Bacchus on its front came down the streets. Illuminated by the streetlights, a constant stream of beads flew from its sides into the upraised arms of the screaming crowd. The Bacchus head made the turn onto Canal Street. Along its side dozens of Krewe members threw beads.
The enthusiasm was infectious. I raised my arms. I shouted for beads.
Thus began days of riotous fun and the pure pleasure of participating in a gifting ritual with ancient roots going far back into the primordial consciousness.
They say the origins of Carnival are with the Roman festival of Lupercalis. Lupercalis was so ancient though, that not even the Romans were sure of its origin. Beads also have an ancient significance. We find them in religions, from the Catholic Rosary to the Hindu Mala. They have been found in archeological sites dating back over 30,000 years. Even the Neanderthals made and wore beads. So the delighting in and wearing of beads is perhaps one of the oldest human luxuries.
I called my son at the hotel. He was ready to go. I went back to get him. We shouted and caught beads and throws for hours. I think the parade lasted three. This went on for days. The Krewes of Proteus, Orpheus, Comus, Zulu and Rex. All unique parades with different themes.
It all culminates in the truck parade, a seemingly endless line of tractor trailers loaded with informals Krewes and recycled throws from previous years. This parade was an absolute deluge of stuffed animals and beads. We stood there for 100 trucks, arms up, shouting and catching with thousands of other people shouting and catching as the horns blared.
As I tell my story to people, they become more interested in my treasures. I have become a kind of Mardi Gras Missionary. There’s something healing in shouting for beads and wearing beads. The ancients were wiser than we know. The Neanderthals were wiser than we know. The people of New Orleans are wiser than we know.
Make one’s life revolve around festivals, not festivals around one’s life. One has to experience it to really understand it. Plan on going. You won’t regret the experience.
- ▼ February (4)