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Mardi Gras in Galveston
Thomas R. Fletcher
Galveston Island is a long narrow strip of land at the mouth of Galveston Bay, bathed in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The island, 32 miles long and only two and half miles wide at its widest, sports some of the finest beaches in the US. Located 50 miles south of Houston, the city of Galveston is on the northern end of Galveston Island. Galveston is an ethnically-mixed, culturally diverse city with a gritty, seafaring edge–with good reason. The area has a long maritime history dating at least from 1519 when the Spanish first explored the Texas coast. The pirate Jean Lafitte made his home on the island for three years starting in 1817, after his indictment for piracy forced him from his digs in New Orleans. Along the Houston Ship Channel, which connects Houston to Galveston via Galveston Bay, is today one of the world’s greatest concentrations of industry and shipping activity.
Galveston is home of many Texas "firsts," including the first post office (1836), the first naval base (1836), the first hospital (1866), and the first drug store (1867). Rich in history, Galveston has 550 historic landmarks listed with the National register of Historic Places. An area once known as "the Wall Street of the Southwest," is today the Strand Historic Landmark District. Marked by stunning architecture, the 36 square-block area boasts a plethora of antique shops, restaurants, and art galleries. The city has 16 museums and historic homes that are open for public tours.
Galveston might be Texas’ first (as in foremost) party town with its revived Mardi Gras festival. It is the largest Mardi Gras celebration in Texas.
Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday," the last day of revelry before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The term, Mardi Gras, has come to mean the celebration that lasts more than a month, starting January 6, "Kings Day," and ending on "Fat Tuesday." Traditionally, this is seen as a period of time to satiate the desires of the flesh, a time of feasting and revelry before the Lenten period of abstinence and denial. Actually–it’s an excuse to throw an outlandish party. Mardi Gras was first observed in Galveston in 1867. The tradition limped along for decades until the difficult economic times following World War Two, when the public celebration ceased. The current tradition of Mardi Gras in Galveston, revived in 1985, is coordinated by the Galveston Park Board of Trustees and the city of Galveston. Galveston’s Mardi Gras celebration is a month festival of balls and parties leading up to two weekends of full-blown party fever, featuring nine parades and continuous entertainment on three stages (February 1-3, and February 8-10, 2002). Each night, the crowds grow all evening, until the street is a single mass of humanity. It ends at midnight when police hold a sweep, closing the entertainment district. Revelers must either enter a place of business or go home. The raucous celebration draws 500,000 people annually. With more than 4,000 hotel rooms on the island, many offering extended-stay packages, from the basic to the grand there are plenty of accommodation options.
The rich smoke of roasting pork rises from the street vendors below, to the balconies crowded with bead-throwers. The licentious revelry associated with Mardi Gras isn’t lacking in Galveston. The beautiful and not so beautiful flaunt their bodies for plastic beads as the youngest look on, wide-eyed. I haven’t figured out the thing with the beads. What is it that motivates a woman to publicly expose her breasts in the most public of settings for a string of plastic beads worth a few cents? The unbridled debauchery attracts two kinds of people: those who’ve come to participate in the wild antics and those who’ve come to watch–families, grandmas and grandchildren, wild women, gays and straights–what a mix. It isn’t New Orleans, but Galveston presents a Mardi Gras alternative.
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