On Mardi Gras, A Taste Of New Orleans' Spirit For nonlocals, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is an excuse to collect beads, disrobe in public and shout "Woo!" out of windows. But commentator Caroline Langston remembers the Big Easy for something less often celebrated: its spiritual properties.
NPR logo On Mardi Gras, A Taste Of New Orleans' Spirit

On Mardi Gras, A Taste Of New Orleans' Spirit

Martini glass filled with Mardi Gras beads

Caroline Langston is a writer in Cheverly, Maryland. She is a regular blogger for Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion. Brian Jarboe hide caption

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Brian Jarboe

Each year on Mardi Gras, when I'm dropping off the dry cleaning, or doing pickup from preschool in the spattering rain, and it's just another ordinary, ennui-filled Tuesday, I really start to miss ... drinking. Nothing can put me back into the spirit of my former city, New Orleans, like pouring two fingers into a glass.

And yeah, I know, Mardi Gras means so much more than just knocking back a few. Fat Tuesday in New Orleans means rhinestone-encrusted queens atop the frilly floats streaming down St. Charles Avenue, like an ancient royal pageant. Or, if you prefer, street gutters filled with flat beer and urine — and calling Central Lockup to find out whether your friends from Massachusetts got arrested.

But for me as a college student in New Orleans, Mardi Gras was largely about the drinking. And I mean drinking drinking. Come to think of it, everything in New Orleans was largely about the drinking: Mardi Gras was just the pinnacle of a party that never seemed to end.

At the university I attended, which I am sure will want to remain anonymous, we used to have live music and cheap beer on the main quad every Friday afternoon. As an evangelical, I was a member of probably the only chapter of a national Christian group whose members regularly went out for margaritas after Bible study. As we wandered the night streets, fueled on theology and conversation with strangers, it seemed like there was an invisible bond that linked everything around us. The city itself felt like the larger church and community we'd been looking for.

Now, it's not as though I've exactly sworn drinking off in the years since. But now that I am a 40-year-old mom, the decision to have even just a four-ounce glass of shiraz on a weeknight seems fraught with moral ambiguity. And a bloody mary at lunch — something completely and utterly common in New Orleans, still — veers a little too close to alcoholism everywhere else.

And yet all that Dionysian ecstasy that New Orleans represents also speaks of a human desire for transcendence that is authentic and true — which is why people keep loving the city. It was in New Orleans where I first believed that the bond between heaven and earth was real — and that a glass of wine could be transformed into nothing less than the blood of God.

So this Mardi Gras, after the preschool pickup and paying the bills, I will pour that four-ounce glass of shiraz, and toast the icon of Jesus on the wall, and think about how one earthly city, for me, became downright celestial.

Caroline Langston is a writer in Cheverly, Md. She is a regular blogger for Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.