It's Mardi Gras Time!

Your Guide To All Things Mardi Gras

By D.R. Bartlette


aissez les bon temps rouler — let the good times roll! It’s time for music, beads, parades and general debauchery — also known as Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, comes to us from medieval France — the same people who perfected the arts of food, wine and kissing. It’s celebrated in mostly Roman Catholic countries and communities, where it is sometimes called Carnival. It’s celebrated during the three days before Ash Wednesday as a sort of last fling of merrymaking and indulgence before the 40-day fasting period of Lent. The first American Mardi Gras was celebrated in 1699, near what is now New Orleans.

But, like many holidays, its origins go further back than the Roman Catholic Church. It is believed that Mardi Gras had its start in the spring fertility rites of the Roman and Greek Pagans. What the Catholic Church couldn’t eliminate, it adopted and rebranded. Today, many revelers dress as the ancient Greek and Roman deities, especially Bacchus, the Roman God of wine.

This year,i Gras is Feb. 16, but that date changes every year. This is because Lent starts on the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday, which is the first Sunday after the first full moon that falls on or after the spring equinox. If that seems confusing, remember that the Hebrews used a lunar calendar, which doesn’t coincide with our modern Gregorian calendar. Next year, Fat Tuesday falls on March 8.

Currently, Louisiana is the only state in the U.S. that recognizes Mardi Gras as an official holiday. Last year, Zatarain’s foods started a petition to declare Mardi Gras a national holiday, claiming nearly seven in 10 Americans support such a motion, and that almost half of all Americans already celebrate Mardi Gras.

Although Fayetteville might not be known for its Catholic, or French heritage (although we are named after the French general and Revolutionary War hero Marquis de La Fayette), our Mardi Gras celebrations have been growing ever since the Demented Krewe of Dickson began a foot parade on Dickson Street in 1992.

According to the fayettevillemardigras. com Web site, in 1996 a young drummer came to Dickson Street for the Tuesday night festivities nude. Sgt. Matt Partain, who is in charge of event coordination for the Fayetteville Police Department, said things have settled down in more recent years.

In 2001, Fayetteville’s Mardi Gras celebration was officially recognized by the city, but was postponed because of tornado warnings. The year 2008 saw some significant milestones: Joy Carlisle and Billy Long were married at the Fat Tuesday celebration and at the end of that year, longtime supporters “Queen” Colleen of New Orleans and Suzanne Ray passed away.

The annual family-friendly Saturday parade with floats from local krewes, clubs and businesses will be Feb. 13. This year the parade will take a new route. It will begin at the Fayetteville Square and end at the municipal parking lot at the corner of Dickson Street and West Avenue. Mayor Lioneld Jordan will serve as the parade grand marshal. Dixie Rhyne, who spearheads the festivities, said the parade draws several thousand spectators each year.

Jamey Hall, accordionist, lead singer, songwriter and front man for Snake Eyes and the Bug Band, has played on one of the floats for the last two years.

“It’s a great time and a big-ass party,” Hall said. “It’s fun, it’s music, it’s dancing, it’s masquerade; what’s not to like?”

Here’s the lowdown on some Mardi Gras traditions:

Krewes: A krewe (just a fancy way of spelling “crew”) is a group who holds a parade that uses floats and/or bands, has the celebration of Carnival/Mardi Gras as its main purpose, and holds a ball. If a group fails to meet any one of those criteria, then technically, it’s not a krewe, it’s just a Carnival/Mardi Gras organization. In some well-established krewes, such as those in New Orleans, membership is hereditary.

The King and Queen: Each year, the Demented Krewe of Dickson elects a new king and queen. The previous year’s royalty rides in the Parade of Fools on Fat Saturday. The new king and queen are officially crowned at a ceremony at Jose’s on Dickson Street before leading the pub krawl on Mardi Gras night. Profits earned by the Demented Krewe are donated to a local charity selected by the king and queen.

Costumes and Beads: Some say the tradition of parading around in costumes for Mardi Gras comes from the same rituals as mummers, wassailers and trick-or-treaters. Because revelers would be engaging in various acts of foolishness and debauchery, they would wear masks or costumes to protect their identities, and the costumes were designed to mock the nobles of the time. Mardi Gras costumes can be just about anything colorful and fun. Traditional colors — green, gold and purple — with stripes and fringe are popular, as are the traditional pointy hats, called capuchon.

The act of throwing out beads comes from the earlier Mardi Gras tradition where the wealthier citizens would ride around the community and toss out food, coins and even live chickens to help those less fortunate. In bigger, rowdier Mardi Gras celebrations, women flash their breasts for beads. Here in Fayetteville, however, flashing is not allowed. You can be ticketed or arrested for indecent exposure.

The King Cake: King Cakes are eaten at, what else, King Cake parties, but never before Twelfth Night — Jan. 6 — or after Mardi Gras. King Cake is essentially a coffee cake, sometimes laced with cinnamon, frosted or sprinkled with colored sugar in the traditional Mardi Gras colors. The oval, ring-shaped cake contains a gold bean or tiny baby figurine hidden inside. Whoever gets the bean or baby is either the queen of the ball or the host of the next King Cake party. There will be a King Cake at the Dickson and West parking lot after the Saturday parade. The Demented Krewe of Dickson will have a booth there and will sell Mardi Gras beads and other items.

From a “handful of loonies” 18 years ago, to a full parade led by the mayor and drawing thousands of people, Fayetteville’s Mardi Gras continues to grow each year.

“There is far too much seriousness in this world, this is my part in balancing the equation,” Rhyne said. “Most people would, I think, be both healthier and happier if they could learn that it’s OK to look silly at least occasionally.”

Categories: Features