Who knew making merry before the onset of 40 days of Lent could be so profitable and fun?
Since Pierre LeMoyne D’Iberville and his band of homesick French explorers opened a bottle of wine and toasted to the king of France in 1699, proclaiming their campsite “Bayou de Mardi Gras,” revelers along the Mississippi Gulf Coast have celebrated the season leading to Fat Tuesday, better known as Mardi Gras, in grand spirit.
It’s the land of all carnivals,” said Reed Guice, president of The Guice Agency in Biloxi. “The Mardi Gras parades on the Coast … truly the greatest free show on earth.”
Jerry Munro, captain of the Gulf Coast Carnival Association’s 2005 Mardi Gras celebration, said, “if you’re a rowdy person, go to New Orleans and have fun. But our association tries to make it a more family-friendly event, where you can bring your kids and grandma to celebrate the beginning of the Lenten season.”
Businesses benefit from the revelry, said Munro.
“Hotels are full, restaurants do well, convenience stores sell goodies and drinks,” he rattled off. “It’s a great partnership between families and businesses.”
Keith Crosby, general manager of the Palace Casino Resort in Biloxi, described celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans “like being in the stadium for the football game. In Biloxi, it’s like being in the game, at the tailgate party, and everything else.”
Repeat visitors from all over the country want to be in the game. Every year, they roll in several days before Fat Tuesday and park their recreational vehicles along the parade route, said Crosby.
“In New Orleans, you kind of get absorbed with what’s happening as opposed to participating, but here, the whole community gets involved,” he said. “Boat captains bring in cookers and spend the entire day cooking food, and bands are playing. It’s great.”
The Mardi Gras season officially started January 6 with events leading to the Fat Tuesday parades in Biloxi: the Gulf Coast Carnival Association day and night parades sandwich the Krewe of Neptune parade.
“It’s great for curing the winter blahs,” said Crosby, who grew up in Pennsylvania and lived briefly in Iowa, where the weather could be brutally cold. “This energizes the community. For a few days, everybody has one thing in common: Mardi Gras. When it’s over, everyone’s saying, let’s move on to spring and summer.”
Revelers in Natchez very much enjoy Mardi Gras, too, said Lani Riches, owner of Monmouth Plantation in Natchez.
“While we do celebrate the season, it’s a very much more relaxed environment than New Orleans,” she said. “Natchez enjoys an influx of visitors for this time period. While many are escaping the ‘Big Easy,’ they have come to enjoy their time in the ‘Little Easy’ (Natchez). On the two Fridays before Fat Tuesday, Natchez has a parade on each Friday. There are two different Krewes that host these events.”
Even though Monmouth does not directly participate in Mardi Gras festivities, the inn is offering a celebration package from January 28 to February 8: a two-night stay and a five-course dinner for two, Mardi Gras style, beginning at $395.
“What Natchezians really like to do is relax and spend time with family, where the phrase ‘Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler’ takes on a whole new meaning,” she said.
Official Mardi Gras celebrations north of Natchez and the Gulf Coast in Mississippi are few and far between.
“Jackson has had no official Mardi Gras celebration in the past, but that’s about to change,” said Mara Hartmann, manager of communications and public relations for the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This year, a New Orleans-style restaurant and nightclub with dance floors and a jazz piano bar will have its official opening on February 8, which is Fat Tuesday. Appropriately named ‘Mardi Gras,’ it gives Jackson visitors and metro area residents a chance to sample the rich Mardi Gras heritage that South Mississippi, Natchez and South Louisiana have enjoyed for eons.”
The origins of Mal’s St. Paddy’s Parade are derived from Mardi Gras, Hartmann pointed out.
“Founder Malcolm White worked in the New Orlean’s French Quarter, got the parade bug and eventually brought it back here to become the fourth-largest St. Paddy’s Parade in the nation,” she said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.