Call to Carnival

When I moved to New Orleans back in 1999 I didn’t really know what to expect. Certainly I didn’t anticipate that at age 32 I’d discover a whole new holiday. And not just a new holiday, but an entire holiday season.

I’m talking about Carnival, of course, and Mardi Gras, and it’s not really new at all. In fact, tomorrow will be the 150th Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans.

But it was new to me. Mardi Gras was in a cultural blind spot. I really had no idea what it was all about.

I still don’t. That’s part of the charm. It’s too big and too weird to grasp fully. Like any major holiday, it is many things to many people.

And make no mistake, Mardi Gras is a major holiday here. They say it defines this city, and I believe it.

I just got this poem (via e-mail) from Cristophe, the magistrate of the Krewe of Clouet, which evokes the spirit of the day:


Hear Yee, Hear Yee revelers all!
It is once again time to heed the call
Of the pantomine and ribald of carnival.

Be a king or a queen and wear a crown,
A jester, a muse, a siren or a clown.
The day is marked for fantasy and mirth,
A day set aside by our mother earth,

Who in her wisdom conjures the spirits of jest,
For her children one grand day to fest
And invoke the heros of myths and odes
To raise joyous toasts as mysticism unfolds.

Join with the masks, the capes, and the plumes.
Don the cloak of a thousand costumes.
Be led by the music and move with the dance
For the day starts early and well in advance.

Thus informed partake with your friends
And celebrate the magical distant ends
Of Mardi Gras and all that it lends!

And today is Lundi Gras. We’ve got friends from out of town staying with us, and more friends coming over to visit soon. My toenails are painted bright green and my costume is coming together. It’s the most weirdly wonderful, wonderfully weird time of the year.

Happy Carnival, y’all.

A Bittersweet Visit

Our friend Andrea visited us this weekend. It was a bittersweet visit.

Sweet, because it’s always sweet to catch up with close friends.

Bitter, because Andrea and her husband PJ are former New Orleanians who have made the difficult decision not to return. They’re starting over in Indianapolis, or elsewhere, but not here. It is a loss for New Orleans. Check out Andrea’s website to see what we’re losing. I don’t blame them in the least for leaving, but it is sad.

It was bitter, too, when we visited their little house in Broadmoor. This was the first home they ever owned. This is where they lived just after they got married, where they started a family with their little boy who turned one a few months after Katrina. Now, the house seems to be a complete loss, totally devastated. Not only was it flooded, but a good portion of the roof blew off. Water from above and water from below… They lost virtually all their possessions, and the house itself is in pretty sad shape, and it is being devoured by mold.

Andrea Masked

But the visit ended on a sweet note: We went down to the Marigny for the Krewe du Vieux parade.


If you’ve never seen Krewe du Vieux, it is the smallest of “official” Mardi Gras parades, and the only one that still goes into the French Quarter, and the best parade of the Carnival season. The floats are drawn by donkeys or people — no tractors. To say that the floats are irreverent is a huge understatement. They are vengefully iconoclastic, wickedly satirical, vulgar (sometimes bordering on obscene), clever, hilarious, and wonderful. This parade, more than any other (except maybe the “underground” krewes) exemplifies what I love about New Orleans and Carnival.


The wind was bitterly cold, the coldest weather we’ve had this winter. Even more bitter was the thought that hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians remain displaced from their home city — and may be getting evicted from hotel rooms even now. It won’t be a very happy Mardi Gras for most of us. But ironically, for those who have returned, it might be the most heartening ever. New Orleanians know how to celebrate in the face of adversity.

After the Party

The party was fun. We actually drained the keg, which made me happy. PJ & Gina showed up with instruments and jammed in the living room, which made me even happier. All the gumbo and the vegan okra stew and the guac got eaten, though we still have a bunch of salsa. Many friends came by, and I met many new people from out of town, including a contingent from Austin and a guy with an anarchist marching band from Brooklyn.

I realized after the fact that my last post may not have made a lot of sense to people outside New Orleans. In recent years, all the big parades of Carnival season have consolidated on to more or lesss the same route. There are variations, but they all basically start Uptown and move down St. Charles Avenue to Canal Street. Even the Krewe of Mid-Cty doesn’t parade in Mid-City (where we live) anymore.

In fact, there’s only one krewe let that still rolls through Mid-City, and that’s the biggest one of all: Endymion. It is a massive, gaudy spectacle.


I’m not a diehard parade-goer or a big Endymion fan, but I love the festive atmosphere surrounding the event. This year I even got out of the house for a little bit to see some of the parade. I posted a set of pix to Flickr.

I had a good time at the party — a little too good. Had a little too much to drink, woke up Sunday morning with a mild hangover, I slept it off, and by 10:30 or so I felt almost normal. I’d wanted to go see the Krewe of Thoth Sunday morning, but I didn’t feel up to it. We spent most of the day cleaning up the mess. Our house is actually cleaner now than it’s been in a long time.


Xy’s making her famous salsa:


It’s so good it’s actually been featured on television. So what’s she making such a big batch for? No, it’s not the fucking Super Bowl. It’s Samedi Gras — Fat Saturday.

Granted, the real Samedi Gras action is up on Orleans Avenue in Parkview. We drove past tonight and observed people camped out on the neutral ground there, and on Carrollton, and even on Canal. That’s just plain crazy. Who wants to wait all night in the cold just to see a parade?

But we’re having our own Samedi Gras party right in here in the middle of Mid-City. That’s why Xy’s making her salsa. That’s why I got a keg of Andy Gator. I’ll be making a massive quantity of gumbo tomorrow.

All readers of this blog should consider themselves invited. Doors open at 2:00 pm and festivities continue until whenever. Need directions? Just ask.

Twelfth Night

Tonight is Twelfth Night, or so I thought.

Everybody’s heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but few people (in America, at least) know that these are the twelve days after Christmas, starting on December 26th and ending with Epiphany, also known as Little Christmas, which is January 6th, today.

These days, with the commercial focus on shopping and gifts, all the build-up is beforehand; when Christmas rolls around, many people have had their fill of holiday spirit. But in merrie olde England, the twelve days after Christmas were a wild and wooly time when everything was turned upside down, authority was mocked, people swapped genders, and so forth. (I hear in Latin America they go for forty days, until Candlemas on February 2nd, but I digress.)

I’d always assumed that Twelfth Night, as immortalized in Shakespeare’s famous play, was the night of the twelfth day of Christmas or January 6th. But it turns out that in ye olde England they counted kind of funny. Maybe they still do. They started with the evening before, so that the twelfth night of Christmas was actually the evening of January 5th. That’s when the crazy, upside-down season ended, and things got back to normal with the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th.

That may seem complicated enough, but hold on. I live in New Orleans, and here Twelfth Night is indeed observed on the evening of January 6th, and it marks the beginning, not the end, of a period of debauchery.

Yes, today is the first day of Carnival. The season of king cakes, masked balls, cheap plastic beads and endless parades is upon us.

Tonight, the Phunny Phorty Phellows (an organization that supposedly goes back to 1870) will ride the St. Charles streetcar and get the party started. The season culminates with Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday — which always falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent and is forty days before Easter, and Easter of course falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox. Hell, everyone knows that.

What this means is that the beginning of Carnival is fixed, but the end floats around. This year, it’s almost as short as can be. Mardi Gras falls on February 8th. Why, that’s barely a month. So all the festivities will be compressed, and maybe there will be fewer frat boys here for the big day.

And I still don’t have a costume…