Behind the Mask

00:00 January 31, 2012
By: Emily Hingle
[Courtesy of James Malacuso]

The colorful and chaotic holiday celebrating justice, faith and power is what so many people think of when New Orleans comes to mind. And it can mean different things to people. Family fun going to parades, formal masquerade balls leading up to Fat Tuesday, or going to Bourbon Street and doing just about whatever you want. Some even perceive it to be a sinful and evil celebration of debauchery, but most New Orleanians know that Mardi Gras is derived from Catholicism; the day of feasting and revelry before the period of Lent when one must fast until Easter. Although most of the festivities no longer deal with the church, it's an indisputable cornerstone of the city, and with that clout come varied opinions about the biggest free party on Earth.

Religious organizations don't often think of Mardi Gras as a wholesome event. The Catholic Church does still recognize the season because Fat Tuesday is scheduled according to Easter Sunday, but not necessarily how it's celebrated. "Usually we think of New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro but there are many places around the world where this day is an excuse for incredible debauchery and depravity," writes Randy Sly in his article "Mardi Gras: Much More Than A Party" on "Anyone who visits one of the big carnivals held on this day usually brings back stories of self-indulgence and hedonism that make most people blush. For today's Catholics, Fat Tuesday needs to be viewed as a time of anticipation not debauchery."

Bourbon Street would seemingly not be complete during Mardi Gras without the sign-toting, Bible-verse-shouting crusaders attempting to save the souls of wayward partiers. The religious protestors have the view that the holiday is not affiliated with any Christian religion and is only a time of immoral pleasures, lust and other sins of the flesh. argues that Mardi Gras is actually derived from Pagan springtime rituals: "Ancient Greek and Roman festivals involved sacrifice, drunkenness, lewdness, immoral sex and revelry. In the parade of the pagans, false gods are worshiped by exalting an image above the assembly. Pagan priests accompanied by the idol, shower the crowds with spring flowers, herbs, grain and coins. Both good fortunes, spells, and curses were shouted, including the calls to the idol god to grant favor and blessings."

Other cities are not dissuaded by the disfavor of religious authority. Essentially, more and more places that don't traditionally recognize Mardi Gras are warming up to the concept of celebrating the day, however, not with lavish parades. A column in the Los Angeles Huffington Post by Mar Yvette listed the bars that acknowledged Mardi Gras day 2011 with drink specials and other commodities. She writes, "So whether you're religious or hedonistic or a little of both, this is the time to get your grub on, drink up, and let the good times roll!"

Carly Petrone made a listing for CBS New York of bars in New York City that would be celebrating for the season, including the aptly-named Bourbon Street Bar and Grill attached to French Quarters Hotel. Another New Orleans-themed bar named Billy Hurricanes, Petrone writes, "…is ready to showcase their love for Mardi Gras all week long…" with free drinks and Cajun food. There are many more events like small parades and balls taking place also with a Mardi Gras theme.

Back in the city, not everyone here likes how the holiday has grown. Kevin Gotham is under the impression that Mardi Gras has little to do with religion or tradition anymore. He believes that the celebration has turned into nothing more than a tourist trap; the soul of the holiday and much more has been lost in the city's attempt to attract tourist dollars.

"In the past, Mardi Gras developed as a relatively indigenous celebration for local residents that existed outside the logic of market exchange and capital circulation," Gotham writes in his essay "Marketing Mardi Gras: Commodification, Spectacle and the Political Economy of Tourism in New Orleans."

"Today, tourism entrepreneurs and urban boosters aggressively market Mardi Gras as part of a larger tourism-oriented strategy to encourage people to visit and spend money in the city - a tendency some local residents believe will result in the devaluation of the celebration for the city," he writes. "Throughout the past few decades, city leaders in New Orleans have interpreted this shift from a manufacturing- and port dominated economy to tourism as both a vehicle and a symbol of 'progress' for the city and its residents. Yet the shift towards tourism has coincided with losses in population, increasing poverty and an intensification of other social problems, including fiscal crises in education and city finances."

Gotham is not wrong about businesses using Mardi Gras for marketing. For example, Bacardi gives out Bacardi Gras merchandise and Crown Royal released a Mardi Gras Kit including plastic cups and beads bearing the iconic crown with a bottle of whiskey. However, when I talked to Brian Kern of Mardi Gras World last year for an article on float manufacturing, he noted that the company that transformed floats from horse-drawn carriages to spectacular rolling pieces of art wants to keep as much brands and logos out of Mardi Gras as possible. "Normally, Mardi Gras, you can't have any commercialism in it," he said.

It was a different story when the Saints went to the Superbowl. The parade in their honor did include brands like Snickers and Sony, but the Saints are owned by the NFL, and the other brand names were included in the impromptu parade.

Mardi Gras is deeply engrained into the city's past and is an undeniable component of its present culture. Beginning as one religion's holiday, it has transformed into a party for everyone, for any reason. Despite the efforts of those who believe anyone on Bourbon Street is having a moral crisis and should repent, and those thinking we should scale down the parades and advertisements to keep it more local, the celebration is growing larger and more vibrant by the year; in the city and around the country.

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