[note: I repost this because of this over at Vox Nova. I left a lengthy comment on the blog about the post.]
A holiday whose original purpose was to "put away the meat" (that is the literal meaning of "Carnival") in the preparation for the fasting that would occur during the Holy season of Lent now resembles little to nothing of it's original nature. In fact, Mardi Gras has become known for its "anything goes" mentality: Breasts, Booze, and plain simple stupidity. The world wide masses flock upon the city seeking to unfold the self. They search desperately as they act uncannily in an attempt to let go of one's conscience and consciousness -- an urge to release all inhibitions madly drives the visitor's actions. New Orleans becomes a city where the lights blindingly shine upon the face and a drumming deafness echoes in the ear -- all sense and senses are annihilated.
When people discover that I am from New Orleans the old question (before Katrina hit) was "Do you go to the Mardi Gras?" I always found this question funny because when you live in New Orleans you don't go to Mardi Gras: it comes to you. In fact, if you are from the city it is impossible to avoid Mardi Gras. After many years of celebrating the holiday (and as I increase in age) I learn how few natives remain in the city for Mardi Gras. Many residents who own houses on the Uptown parade routes go on vacation and often rent their houses out to tourists for an exorbitant amount of money. The past two years I traveled to the University of Notre Dame on Mardi Gras, and it is amazing to see the locals exiting the city. Why do so many people leave? Because the tourists who arrive in the city see Mardi Gras not as a way to have fun and celebrate, but as a means to...well fall into an orgasmic inebriation to the point that the holiday resembles the happenings of the pagan Cult of Bacchus' rituals more so than a preparation to a holy time. In fact, if you ask most Americans what is the point of "Mardi Gras" they, in addition to the younger generations of New Orleanians, will most likely respond that "Mardi Gras is a time to get you sinning done" -- as if God issued a dispensation on following His Will for one day a year in one particular city.
Yet growing up in the city, I never got that sense. The holiday seemed to always maintain a certain degree of holy anticipation for the natives. Certain lines were not crossed by the local populace and the Mardi Gras day celebration (at least the stuff that makes it on the news and in the Girls Gone Wild videos)was left to the tourists. The dichotomy of visitors was amazing: on one side of a French quarter street there is a Christian praise rally complete with witnessing and signs, while on the other side are people who seem to care less about sacred things. I could literally speak for hours on my different experiences I've had at Mardi Gras -- particularly what I saw while marching in the parades as a member of my high school band (I can't tell you how many time my butt was slapped by drunken tourists while marching).
I do not poo-poo the holiday itself. There are many ways of celebrating Mardi Gras without being an obnoxious drunken tourist. Since I am living in Wilmington, DE, I hope to have a few friends over for a bowl of gumbo or maybe some red beans and rice. I'll have a few beers -- maybe try to make a king cake. I will even make sure that all my meat has been put away for the next day's fast. If I were still in New Orleans, I would probably go to a parade away from the drunken tourists, have a bowl of gumbo with some friends, and have a few beers. What I wouldn't do: anything I would not want my grandmother to find out about.
If you are going to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras, my advice is to be careful, don't get drunk, don't be stupid, and don't do anything that might wide up on a late-night infomercial.