This is Mardi Gras and we’re in town to witness it. No, not New Orleans, but Mobile, Alabama. Yes, this city has a strong Mardi Gras tradition of its own, as we discovered a few years ago when we stumbled upon it quite by accident. We wrote about it in our blog, and mentioned how surprised we were to discover such large-scale festivities here. Then one of our readers, a native of the area, wrote in to inform us that in fact, Mardi Gras originated in Mobile. And we learned that he was quite right—or at least what he probably meant was quite right.
Mardi Gras actually has its roots in ancient Rome, with a wild celebration called the Lupercalia (alluded to by Shakespeare in “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar”). When Christianity took hold in Rome, the church shrewdly decided to absorb and adapt pagan holidays rather than try to expunge them. (The pagans later returned the favor and borrowed the Christian holiday Halloween.) Thus, during the Middle Ages, Lupercalia was transformed into Carnival (or Carnaval), and was regarded as an opportunity to blow off some steam before settling down to the serious contemplation of Lent. And when Catholic settlers came to the New World, those who settled around the Gulf of Mexico brought some of these traditions with them, calling the festival Bouef Gras (fat beef) after the dish of choice for the occasion, and then Mardi Gras (fat Tuesday), as the event was customarily held on the day before Ash Wednesday. According to some sources, this quasi-holiday was observed in Mobile as early as 1703. But whether that’s true or not, it seems that the tradition of Mardi Gras parades does date back to Mobile in 1830 when such a procession broke out as a bit of spontaneous revelry, and the locals knew a good thing when they saw it and decided to keep it.
This day is celebrated in extravagant fashion in many cities all over the world—New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro are especially well known for it—but Mobile really drags it out, beginning with events scheduled in NOVEMBER. And during the month leading up through today, there will have been no fewer than 42 parades.
Five of these took place on Saturday, the day we arrived in town. We headed to the post office downtown first thing in the morning to pick up mail (it hadn’t arrived yet), and intended to park somewhere in the vicinity and catch a parade in the afternoon. Ha! Parking was far more difficult than we’d remembered, particularly for a getup such as ours (we would have had to pay at least 15 dollars), so we gave up on that parade and headed out of the action a bit to get some work done.
In late afternoon, we figured we’d bike into town to watch the evening parade. We took the most direct route, which was a major road, and it immediately became clear that local drivers were not accustomed to seeing bikes encroaching on their pavement. Many of them honked their horns as they approached, as if they expected those bizarre two-wheeled varmints to go scampering back into the underbrush from whence they came. Some shouted expressions of southern hospitality.
But we managed to arrive downtown in one piece, and staked out a spot along the parade route. Unfortunately, it was behind a couple of rather tall dudes, so they caught a good many of the items that were thrown our way, such as beads, medallions, candy, and an occasional souvenir tumbler or stuffed animal. And let us tell you, people do scramble after these things. The fun of the whole experience, as we see it, is in just trying to catch the objects as you watch the floats go by; but many people act as if the items they were catching were winning lottery tickets instead of trinkets from China. Anyway, despite our height disadvantage, we did manage to snag our share of beads, a couple of medallions, and even a frisbee. And we also ended up catching a moon pie or two, though we weren’t sure what we were going to do with them except use them as door stops. Moon pies, in case you’ve never encountered them growing in the wild, are concoctions made with two large cookies stuck together by a marshmallow-oid goo, and then the whole thing is coated with a flavored icing. It’s every bit as repulsive as it sounds, but apparently somebody likes them, because we see them quite a bit in stores around here. (We once heard of a fellow who liked to make sandwiches by putting bologna between two moon pies. Just chew on that for a while. Or better yet, don’t.)
It was an entertaining parade, but it was also decidedly short: only about a dozen floats and about the same number of marching bands. The latter, mostly from high schools in Mobile and elsewhere in Alabama, were definitely the highlight of the evening. Some of the drummers didn’t just PLAY rhythm, they physicalized it with movements that were athletic, amusing and quite impressive.
It was also very impressive to see that as soon as the thing was over, the city cleanup crew moved in very swiftly to set the streets back in order, only to go through the whole process again tomorrow.
On the way back home, Dennis suffered yet another flat tire on his rear wheel, about the fifth time that’s happened in the past couple of months, and he’s never been able to find anything wrong that could be causing it. But today Kimberly took the wheel apart very carefully and finally discovered a teeny-tiny shard of glass embedded in the tire. So were all set to bike back down tonight.
This time, we took a roundabout route on less heavily traveled streets, so the hostility factor wasn’t nearly as high—although we did elicit a few honks and one person yelling something to the effect that we should move to the sidewalk and bowl over pedestrians rather than ride in the streets as if we had wheels or something. And we got there plenty early this time, and were able to tour the whole parade route on our bikes before choosing a good vantage point.
And before the parade started, Kimberly happened to glance down and see a 20 dollar bill on the ground among all the debris, so she snatched it up for the prize souvenir of the night, if not of the whole season.
Even though this was the grand finale, and even though the crowd was larger than before, the parade was no longer. But at least we were able to witness it twice; as soon as it had passed, we moved diagonally across the street in time to catch it passing back through. Dennis was hoping to catch one of the bags of peanuts that were thrown from the floats occasionally, but did not succeed either tonight or Saturday—although tonight, he did get his hands on one for a moment, but it slipped out into someone else’s eager grasp. Those moon pies, however, kept flying directly into his hands with no effort at all. And Kimberly, after two parades of hoping and gesturing to the passengers on the floats, finally caught a stuffed animal to add to her collection. So our Mardi Gras episode was truly complete.