There are many similarities between Mardi Gras and Purim, and nowhere are they clearer--or more fun--than here in New Orleans.
Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, was February 27 this year, putting it just about 10 days before the Jewish festival of Purim. Though Mardi Gras, like Halloween, has become a thoroughly American holiday, I like to think of it as Catholic Purim, especially this year, when the holiday falls between the full moon of Tu B'shevat--the Jewish New Year for Trees--and the full moon of Purim. Both Purim and Mardi Gras involve masking, both celebrate turning the world upside down, both encourage inebriation: The two holidays are in many ways soulmates.
Purim falls in the middle of the Jewish month of Adar, and the rabbis teach that at the beginning of that month we already start to "increase our joy" in anticipation of the festival to come. So, too, with the Mardi Gras parade season, which really starts long before Fat Tuesday itself, in the great laboratory of American culture known as New Orleans.
Jazz was cooked up here--out of American marching band music and the drumming on Congo Square and the genius of New Orleans' native sons and daughters. As Ken Burns' documentary series recently revealed, a Jewish family helped Louis Armstrong make it out of the difficult poverty of his youth, and in gratitude the jazz giant always wore a Jewish star around his neck.
In New Orleans, people speak of a cultural gumbo, in which different elements bump and jostle in a hot stew without losing their individual flavor: okra from Africa, a French roux, and a bit of sassafras from the native swamps.
The city also has a long Jewish history, though being Jewish in a city shaped primarily by Catholic culture--and secondarily by voodoo--leads to some unusual blends and cultural conflicts.
Carnival season begins when King Cakes appear in McKenzies, Gambino's, and other local bakeries. King Cakes are beautifully decorated round, braided cakes, a bit like giant smashed bagels, decorated with the Mardi Gras colors: purple, green, and gold. The cakes commemorate the Epiphany story, when the Three Wise Kings presented gifts to the baby Jesus. Inside each cake is a plastic baby, and if your piece has the baby, you have to buy the next cake for your office or workplace.