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Why Mardi Gras Matters

This year, Mardi Gras is about our city's soul, and our cultural and spiritual revival as a community.


It's Carnival season in New Orleans, and that means certain time-honored rituals are going to be observed no matter what else may be going on in the world. Here, bakers are working overtime on delicious king cakes. Mardi Gras Indians are feverishly sewing millions of colored beads on multi-layered costumes. Float builders are drying out waterlogged papier machŽ decorations, testing flambeaux and touching up airbrushed scenery on the sides of flatbed trucks. Captains and kings are organizing krewe parties while children are imagining shiny new throws. All over town, New Orleanians are getting ready for a celebration that is uniquely ours, uniquely us.

Elsewhere, many are shaking their heads in befuddlement, wondering how we can even think of throwing a party at such a time. Our city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina; almost 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded in the storm's wake; more than 1,000 people died; hundreds of thousands evacuated and many are not expected to return; vast portions of New Orleans won't be rebuilt; and worst of all, many in other parts of the country still think we brought this on ourselves or that we're not worth saving. Or both. In the face of such immeasurable loss, suffering and uncertainty, and with all the work ahead, how can we take time out for Mardi Gras?

We think the better question is, How can we not have Mardi Gras?

Yes, there was a debate hereabouts over whether to hold Mardi Gras this year, but that debate was short-lived. Of course we're having Mardi Gras! Our annual pre-Lenten celebration has been canceled only a handful of times -- during the Civil War, World War I and World War II, at the height of a yellow fever epidemic in 1879, and most recently in response to the 1979 police strike. Never has Carnival been canceled because of a natural disaster. At a minimum, the decision to proceed with Mardi Gras this year is an affirmation of our collective faith that life here will go on, that we will endure as a people, because we believe that life here has a deep and lasting significance, even if too few of our fellow Americans comprehend it.

If there were ever a time when New Orleans needed a Mardi Gras, it is now. At the same time, we ought to think seriously about how we conduct this year's Mardi Gras, particularly in terms of the message we send to the rest of the world as we celebrate it. That message is not merely that we laugh in the face of adversity, but rather that we celebrate the blessings we still have as we cling to our determination to rebuild. This year, in fact, Mardi Gras must be more than a celebration; it must be an affirmation -- an affirmation of life. This notion is not misplaced civic pride; it is instead a declaration of faith in ourselves, our culture, and our spirit. All over the globe, people equate New Orleans with Mardi Gras. It's so much a part of who and what we are that if we were to cancel Mardi Gras, especially now, it would send a signal to the entire world that we have given up -- and that Mardi Gras never had any meaning beyond the frivolity. We must not send that message.

Instead, let us weave a sense of civic activism into the tapestry of Mardi Gras mirth. For example, as we celebrate, we should also remember and honor those who are not able to join us. Why not line parade routes with donation/collection booths for charities such as Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross and others, or set up booths where people can sign petitions to Congress for Category 5 hurricane protection and coastal restoration? We could also reserve seats in some of the city's exclusive parade-viewing grandstands for those who have come here to help us recover --Êincluding FEMA officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We are, after all, great hosts. Moreover, New Orleans' Mardi Gras has long been a platform for sending messages -- whether in the form political satire or literary and artistic paean -- as well as an excuse to have fun. Let this year-s message be clear and unequivocal: New Orleans will be back.

This year more than most, Mardi Gras' significance transcends both its obvious economic impact -- which we clearly need -- and the historic excuse to let loose before the austerity of Lent. This year, Mardi Gras is about our city's soul, and our cultural and spiritual revival as a community. Mardi Gras always unites us, and this year it can bring us together like never before -- even those who may celebrate it in far-away places.

So, if anyone asks, "Why have Mardi Gras?" tell them the answer is simple:

Because it matters. It is how we heal, how we deal with whatever life throws at us. Now more than ever, we need to show the world that we are healing, and that we will not let tragedy take our soul, destroy our culture, or break our spirit.

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