- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Time was when those with a yen for Mardi Gras merrymaking had to pack their colorful beads, masks and costumes and head south to New Orleans, where the excesses of the pre-Lenten celebration are enjoyed with abandon.

But the parades, the king cakes, the craziness of carnival have been moving on up up north, that is, to dozens of restaurants and pubs in cities like Washington and Baltimore, where the annual day of excess has become one of the biggest parties of the year.

The celebration has become such a phenomenon that some folks from the South are pushing to make "Fat Tuesday" a national holiday, which would allow Americans to take a day off work to celebrate.

"Why not?" says R.L. Butler, who manages the Fat Tuesday's restaurant on Braddock Road in Fairfax City, Va., where staffers are preparing to host their annual bash tonight. "Mardi Gras is the biggest day of the year for us. It should have been a national holiday 10 years ago."

From Pensacola, Fla., to Galveston, Texas, to Seattle, cities around the country have seen a boom in elaborate Mardi Gras festivals.

"Pensacola, Fla., is now celebrating it? Now that's scary," says Bill Duggan, owner of Madam's Organ in Adams Morgan, who is among dozens of restaurant owners in the Washington area throwing a bash tonight.

Hundreds of Web sites are dedicated to Mardi Gras, giving readers step-by-step instructions on how and where to celebrate carnival and how to catch a lot of loot during the parades.

"Is it just another excuse for people to party? It's really a time for people to have fun and relax," Mr. Duggan said yesterday. "Mardi Gras has sort of become a blowout before Lent or a precursor to spring. It's a time when people can let loose communally."

Mardi Gras, French for "fat Tuesday," falls the day before Ash Wednesday and has been known since the early 1700s as the big gastronomic festivity before the solemn Lenten season begins. But through the years, balls and parades and a certain degree of rowdiness have become part of the tradition.

In effect, it also has become a day when "things can be taken much too far," says the Rev. Michael Fisher of St. John Neumann Catholic Parish in Gaithersburg, Md.

Some people treat Mardi Gras as a "last gasp of having fun," Father Fisher says, instead of what it should be, a time to focus on the next 40 days of fasting, prayer and alms-giving.

"There's some people out there who may not know the meaning of Lent but go ahead and celebrate," Father Fisher said. "Some people have corrupted [Mardi Gras] by thinking that 'it's a day to get rid of all my sinning before the next day.' It's really about focusing on prayer and reflecting on how we live our lives."

The celebrations also have become more violent. In Seattle early Sunday, about 200 police in riot gear used pepper spray, rubber bullets and concussion bombs to break up Mardi Gras festivities. Police said several people in a crowd of about 2,000 threw bottles, rocks and firecrackers at officers after bars closed at about 1:30 a.m.

Meanwhile, police in Austin, Texas, arrested 69 party-goers on Saturday and Sunday on charges ranging from indecent exposure to public intoxication. Police there used tear gas and shot rubber pellets to disperse the crowd of an estimated 100,000. Police canceled today's Mardi Gras parade there as a result.

"In a sense, this day of celebration has become a corruption of what the intentions of Lent are," Father Fisher said. "In a sense, it's an excuse to party."

Some churches choose to celebrate Shrove Tuesday, which is like Mardi Gras minus the floats, the masquerades and the ample displays of skin. The Washington National Cathedral, for instance, will host pancake races after today's noon Mass.

Partygoers around the region will have plenty of bashes to attend tonight, with many restaurants and pubs from Fairfax to Fell's Point in Baltimore offering an array of traditional Cajun and Creole dishes and a host of Brazilian and zydeco bands.

"It'll be a huge party here," said a manager at Bohager's in Fell's Point, where about 2,000 people are expected to attend tonight's festivities. "We throw a party here every year because, how many people will get to go to New Orleans to celebrate? Probably not a whole lot. You make do with what you have and about 2,000 other people think the same way."

Of course, New Orleanians say there's no substitute for Mardi Gras in the French Quarter.

"These other parties around the country in no way compare to the ones that go on in New Orleans," said one New Orleans official who was among the few who worked yesterday. "I just have to laugh when I hear about them. You haven't celebrated Mardi Gras unless you've been to New Orleans."

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