“Happy Mardi Gras!”
Walking through the French Quarter during the Mardi Gras carnival time in New Orleans (NOLA), you will undoubtedly encounter many wild party-goers dressed in various purple, green and yellow costumes – the official colors of Mardi Gras, depicting justice, faith and power. Donning colorful feathers and festive masks, these revelers pay homage to the party and balls held in the olden days.
Beads are thrown from balconies everywhere, as well as in the numerous parades that happen throughout the city during this time of year. Traditionally held on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany and finishing on Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras begins the day before Ash Wednesday, 47 days before Easter.
“Happy Mardi Gras!” is shouted and heard from many passerby and people on the parade floats, known as “Krewes”. The slogan of Mardi Gras is “laissez le bon temps roulez” a Cajun expression meaning “let the good times roll,” which quite accurately reflects the culture of NOLA and of the people living in the moment.
The southern region of the U.S. is known for its laid-back culture, and NOLA definitely enforces this image. However, with the city’s history of war, conflict and disease, it’s easy to wonder how and why the concept of “living in the moment” is so important to people of the city.
The first Mardi Gras celebration in the city was recorded as early as 1699, when French settlers brought the tradition from their hometowns, which has been celebrated since the Middle Ages.
New Orleans was colonized by French explorers in the 1690s and founded as Nouvelle-Orleans, or New Orleans, in 1718. Briefly colonized by the Spanish from 1763-1800, New Orleans was returned to France, and soon after Napoleon sold Louisiana to the U.S. in 1803.
In the 19th century, due to the Haitian revolution, many French Creole (people of French descent born in the Americas) and other Creoles (people of mixed European and African ancestry) fled to New Orleans. The influx of migrants gave the city its diverse population of Americans, from Africans (both free and enslaved), French, French Creole and other Creoles as well.
During this period of time, the population of New Orleans often suffered from epidemics of yellow fever, malaria, cholera and smallpox. Even a proposed ban on Mardi Gras was attempted by Spanish governors when New Orleans was under Spanish rule, not to mention later on by the U.S. government in 1837.
Though NOLA has moved past its days of colonization, slavery and epidemics, unfortunately, however, it still has not moved past its dysfunctional relationship with the environment. As demonstrated by the disastrous effect of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city remains prone to floods, hurricanes and catastrophic storms, and is a fertile disease environment.
And yet, it is perhaps because of New Orleans’ troubled history of conflict, disease, and natural disasters that the people of the city understand what is most important in life. It’s the very reason why Mardi Gras, with its laid-back culture, continues to thrive, where people have made every effort to retain the tradition and culture of laissez les bon temps rouler and live for the moment.