Carnival is an ancient festivity with traditions harkening back to Roman Catholic Europe. Carnival is steeped in majesty and mystery, revelry and masking (wearing costumes and dancing). It is a time for excess, for feasting, drinking, and indulging all of the senses. Carnival occurs before Lent and is a complete blowout because Lent is the penitential season when one is supposed to expiate the fleshly body’s hungers by prayer and abstinence from certain food, drink, and other activities. The idea is that by giving up something you love for Lent, the soul and the spirit can be made stronger to appreciate and remember Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter.
We don’t celebrate Carnival in the US. We have something better – Mardi Gras. New Orleanians have transformed Carnival into their own unique creation which is an affirmation of community, family, and all the greatness and passion that life offers. Unlike Europe’s Carnival, Mardi Gras isn’t only about that special time when the tourists come down to party. It is an extravaganza that continues for a good part of the year. The preparations, social networking, grandstanding by different ethnic and economic groups, the plans for the parades and balls, and courts and banquets are the cultural fabric of New Orleans and all aspects of its society.
These behind the scenes activities, as well as the traditions and the spirit of this celebration are illuminated by a fascinating book recently published about Mardi Gras and New Orleans by Rosary O’Neill, New Orleans Carnival Krewes. As a native New Orleanian O’Neill is able to bring credibility and interest to her revelations about the secret traditions and the secret societies that have been the underpinnings of the history of New Orleans and the drama and revelry of Mardi Gras. Her investigations reveal how Mardi Gras is New Orleans; there is no differentiating one from the other. Mardi Gras has come to fuel and energize the city. The various cultures, ethnic groups, and social classes with their values, mores, and attitudes, in turn have created Mardi Gras and made it evolve into an ever-changing historical and cultural phenomenon.
In revealing this intricate dynamic, O’Neill has contributed vital ideas to help us better understand this city that tourists and newly minted residents find elusive. She discloses the never-before-seen or recognized elements of social tradition and folkways; it is a place of familial generations unlike most cities in the US. This generational aspect of the city’s culture and society and how it has been sustained to its benefit and to its woe offers new insights into appreciating what makes New Orleans so incredible. It also helps elucidate how Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath were both a great blessing and an irretrievable loss for the city.
O’Neill explores how the secret societies established by and within the Mardi Gras social structure propelled discriminatory practices toward groups that were ostracized by the ruling elites and prosperous social circles. She also reveals how this changed and thus began the gradual democratization and inclusion so that diverse groups were able to participate in the parades and join some of the Krewes (a more recent occurrence). She touches upon how and why the social and cultural groups fueled by Mardi Gras maintained entrenched political and economic systems which divided the city, ironically enriched it but also endangered it. All was brought to bear during and after Hurricane Katrina.
O’Neill has written an amazing work about New Orleans and Mardi Gras. To understand the history of New Orleans you must also understand how Mardi Gras is inseparable from the city in its beauty, its racial issues, its secret societies, its roots in folklore, its parochialism, its near destruction by Hurricane Katrina, and its resurrection as it burgeons today. New Orleans Carnival Krewes is an account that will entertain and enlighten from beginning to end. And if you visit after reading this comprehensive and interesting work, you will have a deeper understanding of how the phrase, “Let the good times roll,” is faithfully followed and embraced by New Orleanians year round.
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