My first Mardi Gras found me working at an Uptown neighborhood bookstore, and knowing no better than to believe the beads and titties hype, I was sure I wasn’t going to like it. But in the days leading up to it, I began noticing the mysterious looks the bookstore’s dyed-in-the-wool New Orleanian customers wore when I told them I would be making my Carnival debut. I particularly remember one older lady, every bit the conservative Uptown grand dame, breaking into a childish grin and exclaiming, “Your first Mardi Gras!” When I asked her what all the fuss was about, she only shook her head. “You’ll see.”

What they all knew and what I was about to find out remains a world that must be seen to be believed. Mardi Gras magic is simply undefinable, though its workings are consciously observed by all of the wildly diverse people celebrating the season in every nook and cranny of the city. Since my very first parade, the mysterious glow of Carnival has given me euphorias of every variety, surprises around every corner, and journeys I can only describe as mythic. But as the years go on, I’ve learned the hard way that the ecstasies of Mardi Gras magic come with a shadow side: the dreaded Dark Mardi Gras.

A Dark Mardi Gras night of the soul often starts with something small. Maybe you came to a party knowing in your heart that you’re way too tired and hungover, or you spent hours working on a costume that somehow still doesn’t look right. Other times, its arrival is harkened by the sight of one of Carnival’s less savory spectacles—two grown adults rolling around on St. Charles Avenue fighting over a Muses shoe, or the oceanic trashscape. However it starts, it can quickly snowball until you are left staring in horror at a yawning void where all suffering begins and ends, made infinitely worse by the sense that you are the only one alive who feels it. Everyone else, you think, is drinking champagne in communion with the great god Dionysus himself, while you marinate in your loneliness. It is a bad acid trip with or without psychedelics. A friend with the right words or intoxicant might get you patched up en route, and a good night’s sleep can put you back in the game the next day. But at its very worst it can feel utterly inescapable, which is why I now humbly recognize the wisdom in that OG New Orleanian strategy which was totally inconceivable to me as a baby transplant: Leaving town for Mardi Gras means never having to deal with any of that bullshit.

But as a grizzled soldier going into my 12th Mardi Gras, I still have yet to actually do it, and not just because I’m a see-things-through-to-the-bitter-end kinda girl with an almost unhealthy appetite for a challenge. Mardi Gras magic is about more to me than chasing the light through a parade of endless splendor. True magic is transformational, and that process can hurt. Without Dark Mardi Gras and its lessons, this collective celebration of ours would be little more than the silly drunken costume party most outsiders believe it to be. Learning how to navigate the season’s choppy waters has helped me cut through self-delusions big and small, care for myself sweetly and with intention, and hold multiple truths about the nature of reality simultaneously with grace and equanimity—all skills I consider to be crucial tools for surviving a century that gets more dangerous and unpredictable every year. And when you rock up to Carnival with your hard-won toolbox ready to roll through the season’s highs and lows, its splendors will be all the richer, bathed in the lovelight of the truth you dared to see. —Holly Devon

illustration by Laura Frizzell

February 2024 cover by Brent Houzenga (based on a photo of TARAH CARDS by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

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