The melting pot periodically wreaks havoc on the national calendar. In recent years, Kwanzaa, Juneteenth, and Cinco de Mayo have all been added to the American holiday lexicon. But no celebration is spreading as far and as fast as Carnival, which in the United States is often simply dubbed Mardi Gras. Call it Mardi Gras creep.
The slow expansion of Mardi Gras from curious Southern ritual to national observance began when Europe’s Catholic countries spread their pre-Lenten bacchanalia to the New World. The first American celebration of Carnival took place in the early 1700s in Mobile, Ala. The festivities there were later overtaken by the more raucous and bawdy ones in New Orleans, and from there the practice was exported to small Louisiana towns, to Gulf Coast cities such as Galveston, Texas, and Tampa, Fla., and up the Mississippi to St. Louis. Today’s spread of Mardi Gras to cities like Austin and Seattle continues this process of nationalization.
But Mardi Gras creep is a two-part phenomenon: Carnival is expanding through time as well as space. The crassest but best-known New Orleans Mardi Gras ritual, the exchange of beads for a flash of areolas, can now be seen throughout the year in the Crescent City’s French Quarter. Worse, the practice has spread across the country to any annual event attended by drunken mobs. The rowdy infield at the Kentucky Derby is filled with Mardi Gras beads and the accompanying tit-flashing. So are the yearly spring break celebrations in Florida and Texas. Women bare their breasts for Mardi Gras beads at lesser-known celebrations, too, such as Tampa’s Gasparilla Pirate Fest and the opening of the Tiki Bar each spring on Solomons Island in southern Maryland.
Old-time New Orleanians complain about the secularization of Mardi Gras, the removal of the religious roots that underpin the season, which begins on the Epiphany (the last day of Christmas) and ends on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Lent). The complaint isn’t that Mardi Gras has become dissolute—Mardi Gras is by definition dissolute—it’s that the Carnival season is no longer placed in its religious context, and followed by Ash Wednesday services and Lenten penitence. Now breastification—the extension of a single ritual to define the whole Mardi Gras celebration—threatens to nullify the holiday’s non-pornographic charms. The lifting of sexual taboos is a central element of Mardi Gras, but it isn’t the exclusive element.
Neophytes think Mardi Gras is defined by the debauchery in the Quarter, but locals avoid the mass of flesh on Bourbon Street, at least until the college students who descend for the preceding weekend leave town. Uptown is a more sedate (if still besotted) affair. Children perch on stepladders to watch the parades put on by the “krewes,” the societies who host the parades and balls that define the Carnival season. (Most revelers have never been to the most secretive, invite-only balls, but we dream, imagining they’re like Eyes Wide Shut with former Rep. Bob Livingston in the Tom Cruise role.) If you want to go home with a haul of “throws”—the beads, cups, doubloons, and other trinkets tossed by the krewes—stay away from the toddlers. They’ll be showered in throws, leaving you empty-handed. The favored phrase is “Throw me something, Mister,” not “Show us your tits.”
Mardi Gras creep’s latest manifestation is not the exporting of Carnival from New Orleans to the rest of the country, which would be a welcome development. Rather, it’s the misguided Mardi-Gras-ization of the national party culture. The students who come to town for a peep show aren’t New Orleans exports. They’re imports, acting out what they think Mardi Gras is all about, or what they’ve already experienced at the Derby or spring break. That’s why so many locals go on vacation as the season reaches its pitch—the crowds and the filth and the urine just become too much. But if Mardi Gras creep continues, some day there will be nowhere to go to escape.