Hello world!

Mardi Gras day during St. Ann Society in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans. (Photo credit Jillian Poche)

Mardi Gras celebrations have come to an end. How do you feel?

It’s the week after Fat Tuesday and it’s very quiet. Damp and sticky, the air hangs heavy with the weight of silence. The marching bands have halted their steps and slowed their beats for another year and the floats are tucked deep into hibernation at the Mardi Gras world storage unit on Tchoupitoulas street. Trees lining St. Charles avenue are weighed down with colorful plastic beads shimmering like stones in the New Orleans sun. For the first time since New Years day, the atmosphere is still. There’s time to pause and space to think without the hypnotic call of dance and celebration wafting from every corner of the city.

The mood is bittersweet and full of longing.

Mardi Gras means so many things to many different people and my own relationship with Carnival time is no different; it’s an ongoing exploration. My first season was right after my twenty fourth birthday, when I first moved to New Orleans. I wasn’t sure what it represented and at the time I wasn’t curious enough to investigate. I was living in a one bedroom apartment with two other people who by the end of our lease, became good friends akin to family. Our apartment was located above the Circle Bar, a historical ruby red house squeezed into Lee Circle towards the end of St. Charles avenue. When Carnival season began, we were wedged into the heart of it by sheer coincidence of our home.

Every day of Mardi Gras that year was like a rain shower of colorful beads and throws. We couldn’t escape the storm of dancing, music, and drinking. I was overwhelmed by the constant stimulation so mostly kept to myself on our balcony, sipping wine and observing from the corners. For two weeks it was like being lost in an abstract painting; intoxicating, glorious, and confusing. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until Mardi Gras day came to an end and I breathed a deep sigh of contentment. Everything was quiet again, everything was still.

My second Mardi Gras was different. I paraded with seasoned revelers who basked in the themed floats and shared each one’s history. We created a group costume idea inspired by the nine Greek Muses named after the streets of the neighborhood where we lived. We donned togas made from bed sheets and sprinkled our faces with glitter and set out for the parades. The afternoons were warm and brilliant with good weather. Each face was colorful and vibrant. I remember one evening after a whirlwind day of catching beads I closed my eyes, like a fox to the sun, and felt inexplicable joy. I was beginning to understand.

Mardi Gras day, 2016

Soon after, I moved to Chicago and it would be four years until my next Mardi Gras. Like most things close to our hearts, I didn’t fully understand just how much the Carnival season meant to me until I was entirely cut off. Chicago is a beautiful and special city, but my apartment there didn’t offer the privilege of waking to the beat of the drums three blocks away. Friends down South sent me a king cake from Haydel’s bakery for my twenty seventh birthday and I remember the day it arrived. It was snowing outside that afternoon and my entire kitchen was coated in grey light. After peeling back the edges of the white cardboard delivery box I gingerly lifted the sticky dough and placed it on my kitchen table. I stared down at the cake for a moment, allowing the olfactory senses to revive previous memories.The sweet vanilla scent and purple, green, and gold sprinkles couldn’t mask the forlorn reality of a dessert far from home. King cakes belong in New Orleans and so does Mardi Gras.

Looking back, it’s difficult not to see February 2020 as a harbinger of what was soon to come. The year I returned to New Orleans was the year I couldn’t wait for Mardi Gras to begin. I had become someone my former self never dreamed I would be; a true lover of Carnival. The season I envisioned to be the most exciting however, ended up being one of the most difficult. It brought a time of revelations and difficult good byes. At the time I didn’t know that I would not be the only one dealing with sad partings; our whole world would soon be wading through a deep river of loss. Two people died that parade season. It was devastating and preventable, and for the next pandemic year the normalcy of regular dancing in the streets perished along with them. 

Our Mardi Gras 2021 feels like a miracle that it even happened at all, but it did. That year was the third time in history the parades were ever cancelled. The first time was during World War II when every possible material was scavenged for the war efforts. New Orleans joined the entire country in uniting talents and energy for the greater good. The second was in the 1980s when the police force went on strike and those in charge were too worried of what might happen without them.

By the time Carnival season materialized February 2021, we had already accepted the parades would be cancelled. That year we had a “Snowpocalypse”; a rare event when freezing temperatures sweep southern Louisiana. Looking back it’s easy to believe that our spirits had been broken, but I should have known better. In response to the cancelled parades, homes along St. Charles avenue erupted in decorations and colors based on the most popular ones; Muses, Orpheus, Bacchus, Zulu, and Iris. I was so touched by my neighbors optimism and determination that when Mardi Gras day dawned bright and freezing, I stood on my porch bundled in sweaters and wept.

Mardi Gras day 2021 outside the Muses house.

New friends and I strolled to Lafayette Cemetery and I cracked a bottle of champagne outside the locked gates. Once the cork popped, we laughed so loudly a nearby flock of pigeons instantly took flight. We walked up and down St. Charles avenue weighed down in coats dusty from storage and posed outside the decorated mansions. It was the only time I’ve ever seen the fountains on these front lawns freeze, frozen mid babble. The day ended with pizza and a toast to new beginnings and burgeoning relationships. It will always be my most memorable Mardi Gras day. 

Mardi Gras day 2022, St. Anne’s Society

These past two seasons have been brimming with the colorful glory that I imagine those who’ve grown up with Mardi Gras annually feel, but not without magic unique to me. I danced and cheered in streets normally packed with traffic and streetcars, donned costumes, glitter, and wigs. I kissed my boyfriend during a Fairy themed parade and hugged my friends too tightly each time I saw them. I reveled in new friendships and what the future could bring. 

Iris parade, 2023

 No matter how difficult the years may be for all of us, Mardi Gras explodes with an arrival of reminders that it’s not about the floats, or the partying, or catching beads and shoes. It’s the beating heart of not only who New Orleans is as a people, but who we all are as human beings. We continue forward in celebration of being alive, sculpting beauty from our own hands and hearts creations.

A catch from St. Anne’s Society 2023

3 Responses

  1. Don’t forget the part where we popped the champagne outside Lafayette cemetery and the (probably midwestern) family next to us stopped and said, “Is this a Mardi Gras tradition?” LOL.

    This is just gorgeous. What an inspiring way to start my Thursday morning, coffee in hand! Now I’m going to go write too!!!

    My favorite lines:
    -“For two weeks it was like being lost in an abstract painting; intoxicating, glorious, and confusing.” W O W.
    -“The sweet vanilla scent and purple, green, and gold sprinkles couldn’t mask the forlorn reality of a dessert far from home.” I love that idea– “a dessert far from home.” Magical. True.
    “…frozen mid-babble.” What a delightful pairing of words! It’s poetry.

    I also love how much I learned about Mardi Gras in this post–it’s history, and seeing that history through your own story.

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