When I moved to New Orleans at the tail-end of the 20th century, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Despite a couple brief visits in my youth, the city was a virtual blind spot for me. I was sadly ignorant of even the most iconic aesthetics of New Orleans culture. The filigreed ironwork in the Quarter, the second-line parasol, oysters on the half shell — these were all revelations to me.
But the biggest revelation was surely Carnival. I wonder if native New Orleanians can ever truly appreciate the shock of this discovery. To encounter a new holiday at age 33 is bracing, to say the least.
And not just a new holiday — a whole new holiday season. What fun.
When we encounter some new tradition, most of us naturally seek to understand it through an origin story. I was no different. I quickly latched on to the commonly available explanation, that Carnival is a season of excess before the dour abnegations of Lent. Thus, though not precisely a Christian festival, Carnival is a tendency that emerges in tolerant cultures where Christian observance is dominant.
Later, I heard another story, that when ancient festivals around the winter solstice were suppressed, the desire to celebrate squeezed out in either direction in the calendar, so that we see displaced masking traditions both around Hallowe’en and Carnival. According to this interpretation, Carnival may trace its heritage way back to the Roman Saturnalia. Certainly there are some similarities, and I do get the feeling that I’m participating in something timeless when I take to the streets in costume on Mardi Gras morning.
I’m not trying to sort out the actual truth here; I’m merely recounting the various pieces of folklore floating around, which natives and transplants and tourists alike use to make sense of the season.
What’s going on
Then again, Carnival is a living tradition. Perhaps it’s a mistake to get too hung up on the past. Maybe a true understanding is better derived from actually observing what people do now.
So let’s see. We eat funny cakes. We throw big parties. We have massive parades. We wear strange costumes. A fair amount of alcohol may be consumed. Time is spent with family and friends.
All true enough, but these basic facts utterly fail to convey the spirit of Carnival.
What’s it all about, really? What is the essence of the Carnival season?
The secret heart of Carnival
You could say it’s just a giant party. You could say it’s all about fun and frivolity, but that’s a little too easy.
If you pinned me down and demanded an answer, I’d say that Carnival at its core is about disruption of the social order.
This can be a little hard to see, I admit. After all, the well-to-do pillows of society have their balls at this time, and they’re all about maintaining, not subverting. (Did I say pillows of society? I meant pillars of course.) But even these fancy events tend to be centered on a fanciful re-imagining of the social order.
Also, our big parades have become so entrenched, with influence extending throughout the year, that it can be hard to see them as a disruption of the established order. In New Orleans, they have become the established order.
But still. When the parades are rolling, different rules apply. Conventions and norms are changed, sometimes even inverted. People act crazy. Cheap trinkets become valuable.
We love our parades, obviously. But to my mind the crucial tradition at the heart of Carnival is masking. In fact, our Carnival parades began (in 1857 with the Mistick Krewe of Comus) as an attempt to impose order on the rowdy and chaotic street masking celebrations.
When you put on a crazy costume, something crazy happens. You become a little crazy yourself. Anything is possible. And when a whole city does it, it seems like anything could happen. It’s kind of magical.
A subversive celebration
There’s a subversive aspect to the disruption of Carnival, and I like that. It’s not revolutionary, of course. In fact, the function of Carnivalesque celebrations is generally to reinforce the social order by providing a temporary relief from it. In ancient Rome, slaves became masters — but only for a day. It’s the exception that proves the rule.
Still, as we have seen, these traditions can have unintended consequences. We get a glimpse of how provisional and arbitrary our social order is during Carnival. If we can carry that insight forward, we might work and fight for a better world all year round.
This is not intended as any sort of authoritative analysis. I’m not trying to tell you how to celebrate. That would be contrary to the liberating spirit of Carnival. And the holiday is surely big and multi-faceted enough to encompass a myriad of disparate interpretations. In other words, do what you wanna.
But enough of these questionable philosophical musings. I’ve got to work on my costume or I’ll never be ready for Fat Tuesday. Happy Carnival, everyone!
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband, a father and a resident of Mid-City. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. More at BartEverson.com.