Mardi Gras, Carnival and Cutting Loose

As “Fat Tuesday” kicked off in the streets of New Orleans, I wondered why we Northerners don’t have a similar celebration. Certainly this time of year deserves a little insanity and letting loose.

After the winter solstice, the joy of Christmas and New Years, we slide quietly into the depths of the dark days and long nights. there are occasions to gather and rejoice; the Super Bowl if you are a fan, Valentine’s Day if you are a lover.  But for the most part we hunker down and act like the ground-hog, returning to our dens to wait it out.

Much to my delight, as a life-long Northerner, I found myself in Trinidad in 1980 at the tender age of 25. I had no camera to record this history. Here is what I saw:

Carnival is coming up and the bands are practicing all over town every night. We can hear the steel pan music from our house and it’s strange but lovely.

Dear Mom, Carnival in Trinidad! Rog and I went up to Port of Spain late on Sunday and met up with friends. We had dinner and watched movies until J’ouvert started at 4:30 a.m., the official start of Carnival. Customarily, on J’ouvert morning, bands of rabble-rousers get together and march through the streets, terrorizing the town. The marchers are called “jab-jabs” and are traditionally dressed as devils. We were the only white band and it was really strange to see to many white folks in one place. We wore our raggedy old clothes, and people smeared red, white, and blue grease paint all over themselves and everyone else. This strange-looking band marched through the dark streets of the Capitol, drinking, smoking, dancing and hauling the “pan wagons,” full of steel pans and other crude instruments. Unfortunately, our musicians failed to show up in force, so when we reached Independence Square in the heart of the city, we disbanded and joined other bands, converging on the grassy oval from all directions. At some point along the way, sandwiched between hundreds of marchers, I caught the true Spirit of Carnival – music beating on all sides, people jumping and gyrating in frenzied abandonment, the sun slowly lighting up the sky. It was a really fantastic experience, and such a feeling of total freedom.

Monday morning traffic started to clog the already congested streets, and the bands wound down, slowly dispersing. We made out way back to our car and stopped for a quick breakfast before heading to a friend’s house for a nap. The festivities started up again at noon.

Each year, the many bands have a central theme for costumes and decorations. The bands consist of about four hundred people split into groups of about fifty. Each section of fifty is costumed differently. For example, one band was Childhood Reflections, and was split into sections of clowns, Raggedy Ann and Andys, etc. The costumes are all made by the bandleaders and designers and can cost anywhere from $150.00 to thousands of dollars.

We had not formally joined a band, so we watched the parade from the sidelines. At around 2:00 PM we had enough sun and lack of sleep. We headed home to watch the remaining festivities on TV. Maybe we are just getting old, but J’ouvert was plenty of excitement for my tired feet and aching head. I don’t know how these people live through three days of such madness.


Carnival 2013. It doesn’t look like much has changed in 33 years.

So tonight, I quietly raised a glass of wine to that wide-eyed kid I was back then and realized, a celebration is always dependent on your attitude.

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