In New Orleans’ Carnival tradition, room for everybody

With 2013 in the rear-view mirror, locals have barely paused an instant before plunging into the next big thing – Carnival.

“The best thing about Mardi Gras isn’t how many people it brings to the city or how much they spend, it’s how many locals find a way to participate,” said Errol Laborde, whose recent book “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” provides insights into the many levels on which the tradition can be appreciated.

Laborde, the editor-in-chief of Renaissance Publishing, approaches the chronicles through abundant photographs — both historic and recent — and includes, in every chapter, anecdotes that he believes illuminate the spirit of Carnival.

“I have always had a deep interest in Mardi Gras and got my entrée into trying to understand its relevance to the local culture while I was working on my Ph. D. degree in political science at the University of New Orleans years ago,” he said. “There has always been a lot of criticism of Carnival as elitist, and I wanted to understand it in terms of the culture, the social structure, the religion and the economy.”

Laborde said that he remembered talking at a parade to a man from Cincinnati who just couldn’t comprehend why people in New Orleans seem so involved in Carnival.

“I told him, ‘You grew up in a baseball city with the tradition of the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Here, we grow up with the tradition of Carnival,’” Laborde related.

Everyone who lives here has some kind of memory or ritual they follow for Carnival, he noted, and thus the annual celebration has become part of the city’s collective conscious.

“You might remember riding on a truck float with schoolmates when you were a kid,” Laborde said. “Or maybe your family hated Mardi Gras and you’d fly out to Vail to ski every year — that’s still a way of acknowledging Carnival.”

Rather than simply present facts, figures and historical research, Laborde used stories and anecdotes because he wanted to paint a vivid portrait that could be appreciated at a deeper level.

“I wanted to tell stories because I think they best capture the essence and provide readers with something they can latch onto,” he said. “But the historical research is in there as well.”

Perhaps the most challenging chapter for Laborde is the one that deals with Mardi Gras 1992, and the ordinance introduced by Councilmember-at-Large Dorothy Mae Taylor regarding non-discrimination in krewe memberships.

“It was more than 20 years ago but is still a delicate topic,” Laborde said. “I was appointed to the Mayor’s ‘Blue Ribbon’ committee to study the matter at that time, so I saw the inner workings of how an agreement was reached.”

Ever the historian, Laborde said that the chapter that excited him the most is Chapter 7, wherein he discusses the evolution of Mardi Gras as a civic event, both locally and in other communities.

“It helps put the New Orleans tradition in context because we were not the only city reviving Mardi Gras,” he said. “In the early 1870s, communities were looking for events that would draw visitors to their cities thanks to the expansion of rail service. We already had a small tradition inherited from the French, but by then we were a city emerging from the Civil War and Reconstruction, and wanted to position ourselves as a destination. Train lines had flyers all up and down the route in 1872 telling riders to come to New Orleans and see the Carnival.”