Growing Up With Mardi GrasCSA
Growing up in Southeast Louisiana, Mardi Gras is not just a day or even a week long celebration. It is a season that covers the one to two month period between January 6th, the Epiphany, and the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras). Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, which is a fasting period that lasts through Easter, and Mardi Gras is the big blowout before good Catholics have to batten down the hatches on all their vices. I bet you didn’t know Mardi Gras was a religious holiday did you?!?!?!? Don’t worry, it often shocks people.
Mardi Gras is a costume holiday much like Halloween. As a kid, we always had a big costume box in the garage that housed all sorts of wigs, wings, fake weapons and stage makeup so that we could transform ourselves into whatever kind of creature, hero, celebrity or profession we wanted. There are no rules for costuming at Mardi Gras, you just can’t go as you. And the costuming is not relegated to Mardi Gras day either. There are parties, balls and gatherings of all kinds throughout the season that require costumes to be worn. Some of them have themes to guide you in your costuming efforts and others are just a free for all. Go as Madonna, go as a chicken, it’s your world.
A couple weeks into January, so people can sort of catch their breath from the Christmas holidays and New Year, Mardi Gras begins. King Cakes appear at work and school and the the parades start to roll every weekend. As it gets closer to Mardi Gras day, there are parades almost every day. They roll in New Orleans, Metairie, Kenner, on the West Bank, the Northshore, etc. On any given day you can find a parade of some sort snaking its way through towns across Southeast Louisiana. There is an app you can download on your phone to track them all. And if you live in this area, you live by that app during this time of the year.
The parades are organized, planned and executed by “Krewes” which are groups of people, kind of like a club (or “camp” if you’re into Burning Man). The Krewes pick a theme for their parade and then do all of the work that goes into pulling off a parade and or a ball. During the year the Krewes will have lots of get togethers to decide on a theme for that year’s parade, design and make costumes, design and make floats, design and make any special throws, and of course to plan more parties to plan parties. And there are SO MANY Krewes!!! It seems like every year a new one pops up with some funny theme or new idea for a parade. There’s Krewe of Barkus, a dog parade for dogs, there’s Krewe du Vieux, a walking parade through the French Quarter that focuses on handmade costumes that always seem to have a bit of political satire sewed into their seams, Krewe of Muses, which is an all women’s Krewe who spend all year decorating old shoes to make them into unique objects of art that they then throw off their floats to parade goers, Krewe of Rex, the oldest running Krewe which was founded in 1872, Zulu Social & Pleasure Club, which is one of the oldest African American Krewes whose signature throws are artfully decorated coconuts, and many, many more. So many more. I have never been in a Krewe but my parents, who live in the French Quarter, are the members of Krewe of Cork, which is a wine themed Krewe. Cute, right?
Mardi Gras isn’t just for Krewes and parade goers either. Up through middle school during Mardi Gras season there was always a school project that required us to make mini floats out of shoe boxes. We’d decorate the boxes with construction paper, old toys, glitter, fabric, and whatever else we could find around the house. If your mom was super crafty like mine was, you had a lot at your disposal. Our floats would be displayed in class and there would often be prizes awarded to the craftiest, the most beautiful, the best theme and so on. We also often held our own little school parades where we’d dress up in costume and then parade around the school parking lot throwing beads and handmade trinkets to the attendees who were almost always just our parents who had helped us put the costumes and throws together.
Being that it’s a completely immersive experience, I didn’t realize that Mardi Gras was only a local holiday until I was a teenager. When I realized that this was special and unique for us, I felt sorry for kids in other places. They were being short changed one of the greatest holidays ever! It was a months long celebration that was primarily focused around costume parties and attending parades where people would throw cellophane wrapped moon pies, plastic jewelry and toys from floats while live bands marched and played music. I mean, what’s not to like? Each week my family would huddle around the local paper inspecting the parade routes to decide where the best spot to set up our little camp would be. We would coordinate with other friends and families and meet up along the parade route. Everyone would bring coolers packed with things I wasn’t normally allowed to drink like soda, punch, Kool-Aid and Capri-Suns and lots of food, so much food! Fried chicken, potato salad, red beans, jambalaya and more. And in case you hadn’t brought a feast, there was also usually lots of food for sale along the parade route. Enterprising vendors were everywhere selling cotton candy, corn dogs, and popcorn. The adults sipped on their own adult beverages so they weren’t too concerned about us running up and down the parade route trying to snatch up the best throws possible from each float. I’d come back to our spot with my arms full of beads, toys and treats and they’d feign amazement at my impressive haul. Most of the stuff we caught was horribly cheap garbage made by slave labor in China for 5 cents. But in that moment, as I was running alongside the float, screaming to the rider “Throw me something Mister!!” at the top of my lungs, that styrofoam stuffed bear with the wonky left eye that was sewn on upside down was treasure. I had to have it.
Another popular throw were the plastic cups. Every Krewe gets sleeve upon sleeve of commemorative plastic tumblers made so that riders can throw them off the floats to spectators. These carry a high “throw value” because you can actually use them. In our house I don’t think we drank out of anything other than Mardi Gras cups until I left for college. This was due, in part, to the one year my brother became OBSESSED with catching cups. To put it in perspective, he caught 120 cups during one parade. ONE PARADE! We went to more than one parade a weekend during Mardi Gras season so you can just imagine how many freaking cups we had that year.
Right between the costume box and the stacks of Mardi Gras cups in our garage were crates of Mardi Gras throws that we had caught over the seasons. They were like large chests of pirate treasure. We often recycled them by throwing them to spectators in school parades and there were tons of Mardi Gras craft projects that would repurpose the beads into small figurines or “stained glass” window hangings. Everywhere you looked from the cups we drank out of to the crafts hanging in our windows there were little bits of Mardi Gras all year long.
When I left Louisiana and went to college I was completely unaware of the Mardi Gras the rest of the country saw on television. I started to have an inkling when the millionth person asked me if I had ever been to Mardi Gras, which sounded like a fucking absurd question because it wasn’t something you WENT to. For locals, Mardi Gras was something that just happened all around your for months. So I was confused by this question until I started watching the news in St. Louis about what was going on in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. And oh wow. I could see why they had so many questions. The Mardi Gras that was portrayed on TV was this raucous booze fueled party that took place on Bourbon Street. I had never been to that Mardi Gras.
People had a strong desire (and still do) to go visit with me and experience Mardi Gras with a local. When I was in college I indulged the curiosity and drove down two years in a row with my friends from St. Louis to New Orleans to attend Mardi Gras. The one we saw on the news. Not the one I grew up with. This new adult experience was very different from what I had experienced as a child but it was also a ton of fun! I could see why so many people were drawn to it. It had a lot of the elements I loved as a child, people throwing cool free shit at you from a big party wagon with blaring music and then some new, fun debauchery. Me and my friends ran wild through the streets, meeting strangers and underage drinking our faces off. In spite of all that fun, I didn’t go back to New Orleans for Mardi Gras again until after college when I lived there. I lived right in the French Quarter, one block off of Bourbon Street, in the heart of it all. I got to experience yet another side of the season, this time as an adult and a local. It had a lot of the elements of my childhood experience, attending parades every weekend for a month or two, going to crawfish boils and costume parties at friend’s houses, and then some of the adult stuff which was mostly doing all those things with a drink in my hand.
It’s been 13 years since I lived in New Orleans and in all those years I have only visited New Orleans during Mardi Gras once. I go back 2 to 3 times a year but it just doesn’t ever happen to fall during that time. Part of me doesn’t feel the need because Mardi Gras is not just about that day. Mardi Gras lives and breathes in Southeast Louisiana and I’m happy to say that I get a little taste of it when I go home to visit, no matter what time of year it is.