Out-of-state University students can expect to have many new, unfamiliar experiences during their first year. Beyond the typical challenges of classes, making social connections and navigating campus, Louisiana has a unique tradition that will bewilder anyone who has not experienced it first hand.
International Studies junior Allison Gay is one of many out of state students who had a vague understanding of Mardi Gras before moving to Louisiana from Virginia.
“I thought Mardi Gras was just about going to Bourbon Street and getting drunk, collecting beads, and just partying,” Gay said. “Now that I live here I understand the religious aspects and the feeling of community that Mardi Gras inspires. Plus I love a good parade.”
Professor of Sociology Wesley Shrum and Associate Professor of Folklore and English Carolyn Ware are two University faculty members seeking to enlighten students on Mardi Gras, or the carnival celebration leading up to the season of Lent.
“Mardi Gras is not real life,” Shrum said. “It’s a special time period.”
Shrum, an Arkansas native, was inspired to study the cultural roots behind the peculiar phenomenon of ritual disrobement when he experienced his first Mardi Gras in the 70’s.
“I would ask people, ‘this is wild, there’s all this nudity and everything, when did it start?” Shrum said. “People told me they had always done this at Mardi Gras. That’s completely false.”
Upon further research, Shrum discovered the customary exchanging of beads for nudity was actually originated by nudists in the mid to late 70’s. The trend quickly became an accepted and unquestioned aspect of New Orleans parades. Shrum published a research paper, “Ritual Disrobement at Mardi Gras: Ceremonial Exchange and Moral Order,” focusing on the topic, which has since been cited in numerous academic journals in addition to Playboy Magazine .
“I didn’t know they published research,” Shrum said. “I wasn’t even sure they existed anymore. But they published it in their magazine, and literally cited our professional paper. It was pretty amazing.”
Shrum’s study mainly focuses on consumerism as a motivator for the nudity. He also emphasizes that although it’s a common societal belief that mainly women participate in this ritual, his studies have found that men are just as likely, if not even more likely, to join in on the fun.
“Sometimes people just take off their clothes, and who knows why they do it,” Shrum said. “But they don’t do it on a regular basis, and they don’t do it like they do at Mardi Gras.”
He also observed that in some situations, the participants will receive beads before disrobing, but in other cases, the participants will only get their reward after they have proven they will go through with it. However, even when the beads are received first, most people would consider it unacceptable to not go through with the disrobing.
“Of course, they could always chicken out or not go through with it, but you don’t see a lot of that,” Shrum said.
Ware proposes an alternative option for those who feel overwhelmed by New Orleans Mardi Gras crowds or desire a more family friendly atmosphere. She is an expert in rural Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations, which feature the traditional “Mardi Gras runners” who go around the town dressed in costume, playing music and asking for food from various members of the community. At the end of the day, the entire town will gather together and enjoy a meal.
Although Cajun Mardi Gras is very different from the stereotypical Bourbon Street experience, Ware said there are a lot of similarities between the two.
“Mardi Gras is a time when you’re allowed to act out of character,” Ware said. “Both celebrations draw members of the community together for this heightened experience of fun, laughter, and maybe having too much to eat or getting a little too drunk before going back to real life the next day.”
Ware, like Shrum, is not a Louisiana native, but was drawn into Louisiana culture by the food, music and sense of community. She came to Louisiana from Pennsylvania, after spending her childhood in many different places, over thirty years ago. Now, she returns to Cajun country every year and recommends that others do the same.
“When I saw that first Cajun Mardi Gras, I just knew it had to be my dissertation,” Ware said. “I would definitely urge anyone to try Cajun Mardi Gras. To a lot of us, who didn’t grow up in one place, the sense of community is very meaningful.”