When I woke up Sunday morning, Jan. 13, I did not envision myself spending most of my day at a Mardis Gras parade in Slidell, La., by the Krewe of Slidellians (aka The Slidell Women's Civic Club) even though I knew my son would be marching in the parade with his high-school band. I didn't see myself standing in a crowd of people, throwing up my hands to masked humans, and snatching purple, gold, and green necklaces from the air, but when you're a mother, you do what you've got to do.
And when you're tired and only want a day to yourself you can delude yourself into any belief. My delusion? That I could ignore the first Mardis Gras parade I've been exposed to in more than 25 years and the first Mardi Gras parade in which my only son would march. (Technically he marched in a Carnival parade because Mardi Gras is a holiday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, in English, Fat Tuesday.)
I couldn't see myself waiting for a parade or watching the parade because I grew up in New Orleans, La., and gave up attending parades in my teens. One day I decided that I was too cool to go see Carnival parades despite the seventies, the decade of my teen years, starting to show signs of Mardis Gras gone glam with krewes trying to outdo each other with big stars serving as their kings or honored as riders. Oh, wait! I did go to one parade in my late teens just so I could see Gino Vannelli. Anyone remember him? I screamed like an idiot and didn't realize I was the one screaming until he passed by, his long, brown, curly locks blowing in the wind.
I think the Krewe of Bacchus started the bow-to-a-celebrity trend with Danny Kaye in 1969 succeeded by Raymond Burr in 1970 and so forth. This year's King of Bacchus is wrestler Hulk Hogan. My offspring have asked, "Why Hulk Hogan?" And I have responded, "The spirit of mystick krewes moves in mysterious ways." Translation: How should I know!
But oooh, last year James Gandolfini of the Sopranos was king of Bacchus and I missed it. I was living in New Jersey while the man whose TV character has become synonymous with Jersey was down in my home town for a Carnival season that I had begun to miss whether I knew it or not.
Kevin Costner will be in town this year as grand marshal for the Krewe of Endymion while the Krewe of Orpheus, a young krewe of only 15 years, has peppered its rider roster with a bevy of celebrities, including hip hop stars. One year Whoopi Goldberg rode with this krewe.
I think I remember a controversy back in the seventies over the upstart Bacchus with its celebrity kings, and traditionalists railed that the krewe's celebrity royals would corrupt genuine Mardi Gras culture personified by the Krewe of Rex, "the king" of Mardi Gras, reigning since 1872 or possibly more so that old geezer Comus, born in 1856.
Before I go too far let me give you a definition of Mardis Gras and Carnival from The Times Picayune website, NOLA.com, New Orleans' daily newspaper:
What's the difference between Carnival and Mardi Gras, and when do things begin and end?
Carnival, which is Latin for "kiss your flesh goodbye," is a long season between Christmas and Lent. This historically Roman Catholic city, which loves its food and drink more than normal, prepares for the pre-Easter Lenten season by partying up until the last minute. Carnival officially begins in New Orleans on the Feast of Epiphany, or Twelfth Night - Jan. 6 - and continues until the midnight of Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. The date for Ash Wednesday, of course, changes from year to year depending on the date of Easter. The Carnival season builds slowly, from the drunken streetcar-jacking parade of the Phunny Phorty Phellows on Jan. 6 until Mardi Gras Day. The intervening weeks are filled with balls, banquets and other social activities. "Mardi Gras" (which is French for Fat Tuesday) technically applies only to the day before Ash Wednesday. But "Mardi Gras" is also commonly used to refer to the whole Carnival season, especially the final frenzied two weeks when the most parades occur. A condescending traditionalist may make a big deal over the technicality, but locals normally refer to the entire long party as "Mardi Gras." (NOLA.com masquerading as MardiGras.com. Emphasis added by me.)
This year Mardis Gras is February 5.
I remember equally that the Carnival krewes were segregated. The most prominent ones were whites only and all male when I was a girl. And it still may be that way. Honestly, I didn't care enough to check whether any krewes adhered to the 1992 bias law that said krewes could not discriminate in membership acceptance based on gender or race. I only know that I still hear of all-female Krewes like Isis, which actually hails from Kenner, and New Orleans' most famous African-American krewe, Zulu, still looks plenty black and plenty male to me. The picture you see in this post with the big black face and king in blackface is from the 2005 Zulu parade.
Carnival time is family time
Mardis Gras season is a wonderland for anyone who likes to party, but despite what you hear, the festival is also a family time. The best blog I've seen on family-oriented Mardi Gras is written by a mother at Painted Maypole. If you want to know what it means to be into Mardis Gras, you'll figure it out when you visit her blog post called "Throw me something, lady."
Despite what you've seen on television, Mardi Gras and the weeks proceeding it are truly a time for family fun. Granted, I would not take my child to Bourbon Street (but I've been on Mardi Gras! It was fun!), but outside of that small area in the French Quarter, there is much to do.
It all begins with the appearance of King Cake everywhere you go. King Cake is a coffee cake (you can get it in the plain cinnamon variety or with various fillings. ... (Painted Maypole)
Later in the post she has pictures of how she's decorated for Mardis Gras. She's dripping fun and great ideas.
If you're curious about King Cake, check out the Passionate Eater blog. She knows her stuff. I had King Cake Friday and got the baby, which means I have to buy the next cake and will have some good luck, which is why I bought a lottery ticket this week. As I suggested in the beginning of this post, I know how to delude myself.
Back to my parade attendance in Slidell
When we lived in Scotch Plains, NJ, I saw my son through a couple of parades, nice hometown parades like you see on TV in middle America. I told myself that I didn't need to go to this parade in little Slidell. Slidell is little to me because I grew up with big New Orleans parades. So, I dropped my son off and went home, but then I got the mom S.O.S call. He'd forgotten his saxophone mouthpiece and wanted me to meet him at the beginning of the parade route to deliver it.
The next thing I knew I was standing at the end of the parade route talking to another mother and rescuing trinkets from the breeze. I watched toddlers atop fathers' shoulders drool on their fathers' bald heads while tiny, cheerleaders in sequin-ladened skirts slept in wagons pulled by dance teachers or parent helpers in the midst of dance, gymnastics, and drill teams. Mothers sneaked up behind waiting daughters for surprise hug attacks, and senior citizens donned elephant masks and tossed beads and silly toys from giant, multi-colored floats.
I looked around and understood I had marched across a line in time. My son seemed happy with friends and at ease wearing Mardis Gras beads over his band uniform. My life had slowed down to rest from the Watusi it had been doing since divorce shattered our traditional family image. Maybe it was time to do that second line, I thought, celebrate with a traditional Louisiana dance. I was home.
Photos: I took a photo with my cell phone, but the one you see is much better than anything I took and is from a Krewe of Slidellians gallery of pictures at this link. You'll find other parade goer photos at this link and this link. It was a real family-oriented event.
The Zulu king photo came from this 2005 MSNBC article.
Nordette Adams is a Contributing Editor with BlogHer.com.
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