Here’s to hoping that you’re Mardi Gras is even twice as rockin’ as your Lundi Gras. This is my third “Letter from New Orleans” inspired by the excellent book Letters from New Orleans by Rob Walker. (Letter 1, Letter 1.5, and Letter 2). The purpose of my last visit was to work hard and volunteer some time. This time, we were going to have some fun.
The wind was blowing on the Amite River.
Today is Mardi Gras Day, the culmination of the carnival season. Although the carnival season can be a few months long, parades begin about two weekends before Mardi Gras Day. We flew into New Orleans for the first weekend of parades, which also happened to be the weekend that my niece was having her third birthday party. Due to crappy weather on both ends, our flight was delayed. So we missed the action on Friday night.
We woke up on Saturday to find the wind gusting and the weather about 20 degrees colder than the forecast the last time we had checked. My mother had moved out to “the country” to a town along the Amite River several years ago (about 40 miles north of New Orleans). My niece’s birthday party was going to be at the River House to coincide with the Krewe of St. Amant’s annual boat parade. There was an inflatable jumpy deal and outside games for all of the kids. Unfortunately, it was 42 degrees, windy, and lightly raining. The party moved inside until the first boat was sighted coming down the river.
Hearty souls braving the elements
The boat parade is a local fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Each boat plays music, tosses carnival “throws”, and hold out dip nets to collect money. There are prizes for the best decorated boats, most money raised, etc.
This year’s award for most stereotypes perpetuated by a single float goes to…
The boat parade was a good time for those who could stand to be outside. Those of you from northern climes may scoff at the belly-achin’ about the weather, but anything below 45 degrees in Louisiana, especially in the rain, is teeth chattering cold. We’re not equipped to deal with it. You wouldn’t have been so tough either.
The crowd favorite was the boat decorated like “Chocolate City” with the crew dressed like candy (women were plain M&M’s – men were M&M’s with nuts). This was a reference to Mayor Nagin’s infamous MLK Day speech where he stated that New Orleans would once again be a chocolate city as “God wants it to be”.
Not a reference to the Parliament album.
After the parade, everyone piled back into the house for heat, gumbo, jambalaya, liquid refreshment, and the pièce de résistance – a huge King Cake in the shape of the number three for the birthday girl. Good times, but Mrs. Cayenne and I were determined to make it to a “real” parade. We made a game day decision. Given the weather, the time, how tired we were, and the distance – we decided to hit the Krewe of Caesar parade in Metairie, rather than schlep Uptown for their roster of parades – which had begun at noon. Plus, Caesar is a pretty good parade.
You’ve got to get those hands in the air to get the loot
We had gone to the same parade last year, and we had it all scoped out. We knew where to park, where the best port-o-lets were, where the daiquiri shop was – we had it down. Heading uptown in the middle of everything, we would have been flying blind. As it was, we were on the route for about 10 minutes and ran into the two sisters of a friend of mine. We met a new boyfriend and a fiancee. We had a posse.
This float featured a giant red lizard with cool glowing eyes. I’m not sure what that has to do with anything.
The place we set up shop is near the end of the parade route, and the guys on the float are generally pretty shined up and looking to get rid of all of their remaining beads and trinkets. We have been amazed at our haul from this parade over the last two years. Last year a guy threw Mrs. Cayenne his whole costume – which did not involve any nudity on either side.
Hey! It’s Mr. Bingle.
Fittingly, this year’s parade theme was “Only in New Orleans” and featured the City’s unique institutions – past and present. It was not as satirical or political as I have heard some other parades understandably are this year. The crowd at this parade was smaller than last year’s, but I wouldn’t say it was significantly so. The people who were there were enthusiastic and had a great time. It was still around 40 degrees, windy, and raining intermittently .
A friend of ours just got back from attending a few parades during this past week (he had to go to New Orleans for work). He was shocked that Mardi Gras was something he could take his kid to. I often forget that for much of the country, the only images they get of Mardi Gras are from Girls Gone Wild video commercials. I am not going to pretend for a minute that those things don’t happen, they clearly do. That scene is limited almost exclusively to a small and easily avoided part of the French Quarter. I grew up with Mardi Gras being the most anticipated family event of the year. One year my grandfather was the King of a parade, and I got to ride on his float. Sadly, no breasts were bared in my direction. My daughter (who will soon be two) has been to two boat parades so far. I am looking forward to making Mardi Gras a near annual tradition for her. Hopefully there will continue to be one.
Tonight at Midnight, the NOPD, en masse, will ride down Bourbon Street on horse back effectively closing the Mardi Gras season. Tomorrow, it will be very easy to separate the tourists from the locals. The tourists will be wearing a neckful of beads and possibly carrying a bloody mary. That’s generally frowned upon, since Lent will have begun. As the day goes on, many of the locals will have gotten ashes smeared on their foreheads in observance of the Catholic religious holiday Ash Wednesday. Fun and games are officially over.
The religious component of the carnival season is integral to the celebration, and it is taken very seriously. The New Orleans carnival season begins and ends on Catholic holidays. Officially, the carnival season begins on the Catholic Feast of the Epiphany (aka the Twelfth Night – that’s why there are twelve days of Christmas in that song) on January 6th. The season ends on Fat Tuesday, which is the day before the Catholic Observance of Lent begins.
Since Ash Wednesday is based upon the date of Easter, its date will vary from year to year. The ashes placed on the foreheads are usually placed with oil in the sign of the cross and are traditionally worn until sundown. It is generally considered poor form to get your ashes at, say, 5:30 PM. The ashes are a symbolic form of penitence and are a reminder that we will all return to dust (it is also a reminder of the traditional sackcloth and ashes worn by penitents back in the day). During Lent, it’s time to give up all of those things that were just done in excess during Mardi Gras (e.g., some people give up beer, some chocolate – it is supposed to be something that you will noticeably miss daily). There’ s no more eating meat on Friday’s until after Easter, too. I’m not sure why that is – it just is.
Anyway, Sunday we had a relatively early flight home, so we hung out with the family at the River House and worked our way through some incredible leftovers. I have never left New Orleans feeling like I could have eaten just a little bit more.
My next letter from New Orleans is a few months off now. We’re going to the first weekend of the Jazz Festival, the next big event on the New Orleans calendar. Make your travel plans now.
In the meantime, here are a few more ways that you can help.
- Michael Stipe has a new download only EP (available exclusively from iTunes) that benefits Gulf Coast victims of Katrina through Mercy Corps. (Tunes feature Chris Martin, will.i.am, and Justin Timberlake). Says Stipe,”The news cycle has moved on and I don’t want the public to forget about those who were affected by Katrina or to believe that everything is fine now. Things are not fine. The storm is still impacting people’s lives in very real ways and many have been left desperate. I want to remind each of us that as humans, and certainly as Americans, it is our responsibility to help those in need.” Download it already.
- The New Orleans Public Library could use your help.