Days of the Living
Human beings are the only animals who party. Across the world, in every culture, wild festivities interrupt the year to mark seasonal turning points, commemorate important events or just encourage us to drink to excess. Hell, we’ll even invite the dead to come back, briefly, to carouse with us. Far from being time-outs from living, holiday revels are the very stuff of life.
Holidays sometimes have bloody origins. Some commemorate a triumph of good over evil, but there’s often a dark side to the victory. The Jewish festival of Purim celebrates the Jews’ deliverance from a plan to exterminate them engineered by Haman, vizier of the Persian king Ahasuerus. This devilish plot fails, however, thanks to the king’s cleverly manipulative Jewish queen, Esther. Hanged from the gallows he had constructed to execute Esther’s cousin Mordecai, Haman may have gotten his just deserts, but the ensuing slaughter of Haman’s 10 sons and 75,000 of his coconspirators adds a shocking dimension to the biblical Book of Esther’s happy ending.
Several Hindu stories explain Holi’s beginnings, but one central tale involves two grisly deaths. The evil king Hiranyakashipu, whom the god Brahma granted near-perfect invulnerability, demands to be worshipped. The king’s son, Prahlada, demurs—so his father decides to murder him. (Did Freud write this?) To kill Prahlada, Hiranyakashipu enlists his own equally evil sister, Holika. This plot likewise goes awry, and both Hiranyakashipu and Holika perish instead: He is clawed to death by the god Vishnu; she burns. Bonfires lit the night before Holi toast Holika’s blazing demise.
Holidays are messy. Think of all the crumpled wrapping paper Christmas morning brings—and all the evergreen cadavers on city sidewalks two weeks later. But India’s Holi festival and New Orleans’s Mardi Gras are really messy, because throwing stuff is an essential activity in both celebrations. At Holi, revelers welcome spring by tossing colored dyes—brightly hued powders, balloons filled with tinted water—at one another. It’s like a game of paintball played on a national scale. The laundry business must love this holiday.
In New Orleans, the tradition of throwing things dates back to Mardi Gras’s beginnings: Early paraders flung flour into the air. Sometime in the 19th century, the groups that organize the parades began throwing strings of glass beads from atop floats to onlookers gathered on streets and balconies. Mardi Gras “throws”—the objects also include decorated coconut shells, fake coins called doubloons, and plush or illuminated LED toys—combine with the thousands of go-cups discarded by drunken bacchants to create vast amounts of garbage. There’s so much litter that NOLA residents jokingly refer to Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, as Trash Wednesday.
Holidays are seasonal. Many take place at what anthropologist Victor Turner termed “liminal” periods: in-between times of year that mark the transition from one season to the next. That’s true of the Mexican holiday Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead, actually a three-day event), which coincides with the harvest, Halloween and the Catholic feasts of All Saints and All Souls on the first two days of November. Signaling the approach of spring in March is the Hindu festival of colors, Holi.
As Turner also noted, folk holidays are often social levelers, erasing distinctions between classes or even temporarily turning the social hierarchy upside down. At Holi celebrations in India and throughout the South Asian diaspora, everyone flings vivid colors at one another—and people from all social strata end up looking like riotous abstract paintings. Día de Muertos totally upends ordinary distinctions, according the dead pride of place in the family and community. Celebrants construct home altars to honor the departed, offer food and drink to their souls, and visit and decorate their graves. Decked out in aristocratic finery, the Lady of the Dead, a.k.a. La Calavera Catrina (“elegant skeleton”), presides over all the activity.
Holidays are for dressing up. On American Halloween, kids and adults disguise themselves as anybody or anything—superheroes, toothpaste tubes, witches, household appliances. But Día de Muertos gatherings have a more standardized fancy dress code. The costumes play variations on La Calavera Catrina, the elegant skeleton figure that Mexican cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada popularized in the late 19th century. These “living dead” outfits aren’t at all zombie-like. In their often intricate artistry, especially the makeup that transforms living faces into whimsically decorated skulls, the ensembles convey not fear of the dead but reverence—and a sometimes wry wit about what lies beneath every human skin.
At Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you’ll see all sorts of costumes (as well as people peeling off their clothes to attract the attention of those throwing beads from parade floats). Many Mardi Gras masks hark back to the commedia dell’arte character masks of 16th-century Venetian Carnivals, but one group of revelers pursues an indigenous costuming tradition. These so-called Mardi Gras Indians—self-proclaimed “tribes” of local African American men—spend months constructing splendid beaded, feathered regalia based (loosely) on Plains Indian garb, then parade through the streets on Fat Tuesday, engaging in competitive mock battles.
Holidays are hard work. All that shopping you have left to do every December 24 pales in comparison to the many months, or even a full year, of intensive preparation that citywide days-long festivals demand. And much of this work is carried out by ordinary citizens for whom the festival isn’t just the high point of the calendar but a reason for being.
In New Orleans, private organizations called krewes—part pleasure clubs, part civic benefactors—produce the Mardi Gras season’s many balls and parades. Membership in a krewe can require a serious commitment of time and money, since somebody has to build all those floats, sew all those costumes and pay for the heaps of tchotchkes flung into the crowds.
Krewes find a rough equivalent in the samba schools that create the Carnaval parades in Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities. Rio’s pre-Lent blowout is more spectacular than New Orleans’s—a single school’s parade may have 5,000 performers—and producing the ingeniously themed floats and costumes requires uncountable hours of effort by a multitude of workers, many of them volunteers.
Holidays are noisy. The tooting of toy horns or the booming of municipal fireworks on New Year’s Eve drives away the evil spirits who like to take advantage of the traditionally dangerous interstices between one year and the next. Similarly, when the biblical Book of Esther is read aloud at Purim celebrations in early spring, the congregation twirls noisemaking ratchets, called in Yiddish graggers or hamandreyirs, to drown out the name of the evil vizier Haman each of the 54 times he’s mentioned in the text. In earlier centuries Haman also suffered the posthumous humiliation of being hung and burned in effigy.
Not all holiday noise is so unmusical, however. During Rio’s five-day-long Carnaval, revelers are immured in the relentless wall of sound produced by thousands of samba drummers, other musicians and singers in the official parades that march through Rio’s blocks-wide Sambadrome area, where competitions are held. Unofficial bands, called blocos, simply wander through the city’s streets. Your body has no choice but to dance to samba, a Brazilian musical genre with deep African roots. In the Sambadrome and outside it, performers and spectators alike are shaking their booties.