When we are talking liturgical year, I know Fat Tuesday is the term most people use to describe the day before Ash Wednesday. But as a New Orleans native, for me, it always has been and always will be Mardi Gras. And in contrast to the vision most non-natives have of the debauchery that Mardi Gras is projected to be, or that maybe they have even experienced as tourists, for me, many of my favorite childhood memories and memories of my family center on the yearly two-week long celebration that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Heading out to parade routes early to stake out a good spot, and setting up our special Mardi Gras ladders that are topped with wooden boxed seats for small children where they can have a good view of the passing floats above the heads of the adult crow. As a child, I coveted the seat in that ladder, and as an adult, I have cherished being the one to stand behind a nephew or niece and the joy when a coveted throw landed in his or her hands. The lights, the sounds, the music, the smells of Mardi Gras are mixed up in my brain with childhood joy and unforgettable family memories. Even running to find a place to use the bathroom has been a memorable occasion enough times that I can still augh about a few adventures.
A few years ago, our missionary family happened to land ourselves in New Orleans smack in the middle of Mardi Gras season without planning it that way. For most of my children this was either their first experience of New Orleans Mardi Gras, or the first time they would remember it. I don’t think I stopped smiling the whole week to know they had received this gift of which I have so many fond memories and being able to share it with them. Come to think of it, I don’t they stopped smiling either.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans also has a very formal and traditional side of courts and kings and queens and maids and balls that require full-length gowns. There is the secret tradition of the King of the Rex parade that is not announced until close to the day of this kick-off parade on Mardi Gras morning, always a figure honored for his civic duty and contribution to the city. There is his arrival by barge on the Mississippi River on Lundi Gras (the Monday of that same week) and the traditional meeting of the Rex and Comus courts during their balls on Mardi Gras night that signals the end of the season.
While many celebrations of this day liturgical year revolve around Shroud Tuesday pancakes or other dishes, for me Mardi Gras will always be about picnic food that could be toted easily to the parade route, soft drinks in cans cold from the cooler, Popeye’s fried chicken (a parade route classic), early morning doughnuts when you needed to arrive at sunrise to claim your spot, and copious amounts of King Cake.
For many New Orleanians that crowd the streets on Mardi Gras Day, the next day they are serious Catholics crowding the doorways of Ash Wednesday masses. For us, the season is a time of enjoying the uniqueness of our hometown and the families that inhabit it, most importantly our own. And then taking up the traditions of our faith as moving on to the solemn season of Lent with the same fervor with which we celebrated the day before.
If you choose to celebrate Fat Tuesday with pancakes or in some other way, relating the liturgical tradition to a different aspect, all is well. But if you want to imitate a little New Orleans Mardi Gras in your home on this day, might I suggest Popeye’s fried chicken and King Cake. This recipe has worked out well for me, even here in Costa Rica, but simply ringing together cinnamon rolls and sprinkling them with purple, green, and gold sugar (traditional Mardi colors) will work. You can also find many family friendly vides on Youtube to celebrate Mardi Gras as well.
Whichever way you choose to celebrate this aspect of the liturgical year, know that we New Orleanians, both near and far from home, are hoping you’ll “Laissez le bon temps roulez!”, that is to say, “Let the good times roll!”
Written by Colleen M. Find out more about her here.