I was born and raised in New Orleans, and with that extraordinary bit of luck came certain expectations. It is expected that all natives of New Orleans understand the need to party. They have an innate ability to produce amazing food and drink on a moment's notice, and it's never a real party unless "your mom 'n' em" are there, too. Since the average family in this very Catholic city has a least four children, "your mom 'n' em" can truly be a crowd of epic proportions.
It's expected that you love football, and at any given moment, can recite either the LSU defensive line - first name AND last name - give Drew Brees's current passing statistics - or list the last five coaches that left the Saints only to go on to the Superbowl within two seasons. (Hint: their number is legion.)
And finally, of course, everyone from New Orleans loves Mardi Gras.
Now, people from around the world know about Carnival. They know about it from Italy, from Spain, from Brazil, and now, I hear, from Australia. Say what? Talk about your non sequiters. I didn't even know the Aussies could dance, but hey! It's a big, wide world.
But the tradition of "Carnival" is not exactly the same as "Mardi Gras." The former is a great big celebration, where inhibitions are loosed by the possiblity of hiding your identity. The latter is a PARTY (see definition, above) that is held to celebrate the last day of eating before the fast of Lent begins. The former is anonymous while the latter is held right smack-dab in the middle of your family and friends, who would recognize you in an astronaut suit walking on the Moon.
The result of this dichotomy is that everyone who comes here from out of town, is here for "Carnival," while to natives, it's "Mardi Gras." In the French Quarter, it's "Carnival," while in Metarie and Algiers, and Mandeville, it's "Mardi Gras." And, it seems, never the twain shall meet.
Visitors to this beautiful city will come - and go - without ever experiencing the family-oriented side of Mardi Gras. That's the side where the whole family - grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends - from old-enough-to-be-carried to old-enough- to-be-wheelchaired - go down to the parade route and talk, and shout, and push each other until the parade passes by. Then they go back to the nearest relative's house, and eat and drink - until the next parade comes along. All the time they know that the next day begins the holiest of seasons, and meat, and wine, and chocolate will be foregone for the next 40 days in a spirit of seeking and sacrifice.
They will gather again on Easter morning, in the light of that new beginning, to celebrate - with chocolate, and wine, and meat - shared in raucous communion. And nothing in "Carnival" will ever produce the "community" of that feast.