As promised, here’s a post about Mardi Gras. Turns out there was a lot that I did not know about this unique holiday. I will attempt to relay my preconceived notions, what I’ve gathered from locals, what I’ve learned from my own limited research, as well as personal observations with it here in Memphis and on our trip to New Orleans.
To start, it was unclear to me whether Mardi Gras was a specific day, or the name of a season. Turns out the answer is… both… kind of. Well, technically it is the day before Ash Wednesday, or Lent begins. I mean, Mardi Gras literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French. But it is also commonly used to refer to the entire festive season beginning on January 6th, which is the Twelfth Night after Christmas (although some appear to consider this January 5th) and ending on Fat Tuesday. This whole festive season is actually called Carnival. New Orleans natives seem to refer to it as such, but most of the rest of the country appear to refer to it as Mardi Gras. Since I’m not from New Orleans, I’ll refer to them both as Mardi Gras, even though it’s somewhat confusing and could be easily differentiated by using the word Carnival instead but that would be way too straightforward (and nothing about this holiday seems straightforward).
Jeff and I visited New Orleans in the beginning of February during Mardi Gras (figure it out). It was a great time to visit the city, as it is all festive and decorated for the season. I knew the Mardi Gras colors were green, purple, and gold. But I was a bit curious as to the origin and significance of those colors.
A coworker had explained to me that the colors were chosen to represent the colors of the gifts the three wise men brought to the baby Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. She is a Mississippi native and Mardi Gras enthusiast so I accepted her explanation… Until I started thinking about what I knew of frankincense and myrrh and thought, wait, are they really purple and green? I did a bit of research and did not find anything to validate this explanation. Whether she was told this from family tradition or somehow fabricated the idea out of her head, I do not know. I have come to discover that she is one of those people that expresses every statement with equal intensity and conviction regardless of the veracity of that statement. I am somewhat in awe of this trait, as I am on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. This does make it difficult to discern whether she is saying something valid and helpful or completely unfounded… it’s rather a fun little guessing game.
Anyhow, back to Mardi Gras. There appears to be consensus on the significance attributed to the colors: Purple represents Justice, Green represents Faith, and Gold represents Power. Well, that’s fine and dandy. But why those colors to begin with? New Orleans official Mardi Gras website recommends that if someone asks you about the history of the colors you say, “It’s complicated. Have another Bloody Mary.” Seriously, that’s their advice. Oh, it does give an additional convoluted answer dating back to the Rex Parade in 1872 but it’s really not the most exciting, so let’s move on…
As I mentioned in the last post, we were fortunate enough to be able to witness a Mardi Gras Parade during our visit to New Orleans. I did not realize that there were parades (plural) throughout the course of the season. I had just thought of the raucous procession on Fat Tuesday as the Mardi Gras Parade. You know, like the Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving and the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day. But apparently Mardi Gras scoffs at those meager single day festivities and has over 15 days (by this year’s count) that include parades around downtown.
We consulted the parade calendar and discovered that the Krewe of Chewbacchus was the major event going on while we were in town. This still left me with many questions. Like, what’s a Krewe? Is that supposed to be like Chewbacca, the beloved wookiee warrior, from Star Wars… but isn’t that spelled differently? What does Star Wars have to do with Mardi Gras? Why do we keep coincidentally visiting cities during giant Fantasy/Sci-fi parades (see Atlanta during Dragon-con)?!?
A krewe, pronounced crew, appears to be a term mainly used in Mardi Gras to refer to the self-funded groups that organize around a specific theme and take part in a parade. Some of the krewes have a long history and select membership, some are much newer and open to participants. The Krewe of Chewbacchus was actually composed of over 150 distinct subkrewes paying homage to sci-fi, horror, fantasy and everything in between. The name is deliberately spelled as such as a play on words to the Krewe of Bacchus, which is one of the most historic and spectacular Mardi Gras Parades. Bacchus is the Greek god of wine, naturally.
The night of our arrival, after a lovely candlelit dinner (mentioned in previous post), we made our way across town about mid-way along the parade route for some Chewbacchus viewing. That’s another thing about the Mardi Gras Parades – they all follow different routes throughout different parts of the city. Again, I had assumed that there would be one parade route. Definitely not. You had to consult a guide to determine where each Krewe would march during the festival. And then, of course, you could download an App that would show you where the parade front was in relation to your location.
The Krewe of Chewbacchus started at 7pm but since we were farther down the route, it did not reach our location until about 8pm. It took place in the Marigny district and was more of a walking parade than a large float parade. That being said, it was difficult to see many of the subkrewes unless you were in the first couple rows of spectators or viewing from a balcony. We did not come with the level of preparedness to be atop a balcony but were able to gradually maneuver ourselves towards the front of the standing masses.
The creativity and preparedness varied vastly among subkrewes. Some had an obviously established theme, had choreographed steps or dancing to music, had their own unique floats and throws… others not so much. It was a unique spectating experience as there were no barricades or seeming enforcement of any rules. It felt like those images that you see on TV of the Tour de France where the spectators press in and move out of the way just in time for the cyclists to pass. Except, instead of the cyclists, the spectators would crowd the parade members or floats. It was much more of an interactive experience than any other parade I’d seen, as spectators would often jump in and out of the parade to get selfies with participants or ask for a specific throw item.
A “throw” is another Mardi Gras tradition, and it’s basically exactly what it sounds like, an item that is thrown by krewe members to the parade-goers. One of the most well-known throws are the beaded necklaces, and no, from my observation they were not only thrown for that reason. Jeff caught one for me as it hurled towards the face of the woman in front of him. I also caught a small round pin with one of the krewes emblem on it, that was probably their version of doubloon. A doubloon is technically a Spanish gold coin, but in reference to Mardi Gras they are usually aluminum and made specifically by each krewe to be tossed into the crowd (apparently gold was too expensive to use in this manner). I was also the recipient of a fist full of glitter to the face, that stuff stayed in my hair for days…
Given the overall theme of the parade, we saw a good deal of Star Wars, Star Trek, space and fantasy themed groups but so much more as well. There was a Sharknado krewe who’s homemade float looked more like a giant white cotton candy stick with decidedly un-intimidating blow-up sharks peeking out. There was the Avatarlicious krewe whose self-purported goal is “shaking our blue asses for the betterment of the intergalactic nations.” There were the Space Cats, which essentially used the Nasa logo and theme but, wait for it, with cats. There were rainbow-wigged men riding Wampas. From a distance, I thought they were unicorns but the website for the Krewe of Chewbacchus clearly stated in their set of three rules No Unicorns (unless they have rocket thrusters). There were indeed unicorns later in the parade though, and I don’t think they all had rocket thrusters. Also, in case you’re wondering (I know you were), the other two rules were listed as: No elves (unless they are cyborgs) and Whinebots will be air locked into the nearest Black Hole. I don’t really understand the last one, but I feel like this is the type of event where asking why is really besides the point.
I simply stood back and accepted the randomness that was unfolding before me. Other notable bizarre entries included: men in banana suits, Storm Troopers wearing referee shirts, Space Vikings (they had quite an impressive float), a random Cher, and a male acrobat in a lingerie bunny suit displaying some impressive pole-dancing skills. Clearly, not everything was strictly regulated or tied into a cohesive theme. There were no gigantic floats due to the restricted route, but there were a decent amount of smaller contraptions that were pushed, pulled, or attached to a small vehicle.
If there was such a thing as a fan award my vote would have gone to the Knights of Rarely Exposed Navels (REN). Their goal appeared to be to raise public awareness of the awesomeness of Kylo Ren Pants. Their website (because of course they have a website, and of course I went there) says of the stylish pants: They make a skinny person look fat, they make a healthy person seem deformed, they make the navel disappear – they are the best pants in the galaxy.
The subkrewes kept coming for over two hours, and though not raunchier in theme, the participants (and spectators) appeared to get rowdier as perhaps, the most unifying theme in the parade was alcohol. Apparently no open container law in Nawlins. We eventually began walking down the parade route as the subkrewes kept marching and hung around towards the tail end of the parade before heading back to our hotel.
The last Mardi Gras tradition that I’d like to share is that of the King Cake. I’m not really sure how many people outside the South know what a King Cake is. I didn’t know what it was until college when a classmate who had lived in this part of the country brought one to a gathering. Maybe I was alone in my ignorance, or maybe many of you Seattle-bred readers are wondering the same thing, what is a King Cake?
Well, since you asked… a King Cake is made and enjoyed following the Twelfth Night and throughout the Mardi Gras season. It is made of dough braided in a ring and covered with sugary toppings in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold (really more like yellow). The cakes are very vibrant in color as the sprinkles are often applied with a heavy hand, definitely not for the food-coloring averse. Oh, and there’s a small plastic baby baked inside.
So the baby thing was a bit perplexing to me. Some people referred to it as baby Jesus. Some just called it the baby. It seems widely accepted that, to be a King Cake there has to be a baby of some sort inside. But no one seemed to be able to answer my seemingly simple question of, “Why is there a baby in the cake?” The answer I kept getting was always some form of, “The person who gets the bite with the baby has to bring the King Cake to the next gathering.” Ok, fair enough, nice little tradition… But why did we put the baby, debatably little Jesus, in there in the first place?!
Similar to the origin of the Mardi Gras colors, there doesn’t seem to be an easily traceable answer to this question. It appears to have French origins, at previous times there may have been a different small item (coin or bean) hidden in the cake but eventually it came to rest on the tradition of a tiny baby. Today it symbolizes luck or prosperity to whoever finds it, and yes, they are then responsible for throwing the next party or bringing the next King Cake.
Also, in conducting extensive research on this issue I just discovered that the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans have a seasonal King Cake Baby mascot and it is terrifyingly fantastic. So I have included a photo below for your viewing pleasure. You’re welcome.
Starting in early January I started seeing mass produced, neon, King Cakes popping up in the local store’s bakery sections. A coworker, or maybe a patient, brought one into work and I had a piece. As far as cakes go the breading was a bit dry, the frosting was generic, there wasn’t much of a distinctive flavor, and there was definitely too much food coloring. As I went back for my second small slice I remember thinking, this really isn’t that good of a cake. Followed by, well then why am I having another slice of it? Stupid inner monologue.
Anyways, when we visited New Orleans we were given recommendations for specific bakeries that specialized in King Cakes. I decided, to give it another chance and try perhaps, a more authentic version. On our way out of town we stopped at Manny Randazzo and picked up a couple cakes, one for our own enjoyment, one to deliver to a coworker upon request.
The King Cake we enjoyed from Randazzo was vastly superior to the one I tried earlier at my office. Randazzo offered a variety of flavors, or fillings mixed into the cake. And for the indecisive, like us, they had a Royal Cake that had four different sections filled with either apple, lemon, strawberry, or cream cheese. Not only was the cake density and flavor itself better than the generic store brand, but I enjoyed trying the different flavors (cream cheese was my favorite of the aforementioned). Randazzo is also known for their famous white, creamy icing which enhanced the flavors of the cake and was gently sprinkled with, but not overwhelmed by, the Mardi Gras colors.
The official day for Mardi Gras this year was March 5th which came and went without significant fanfare here in Memphis. It seems that the city does not specifically celebrate the holiday on that day but that those with cultural ties to nearby areas still do. My coworker from Mississippi took a couple days off work to return to her hometown and celebrate with her family. It is a legal state holiday in Louisiana as well as a couple counties in Alabama, including Mobile where the first US Mardi Gras celebration actually took place.
This led me to briefly wonder, what regional holiday or tradition do we have in the Northwest that is unique from other parts of the country? Some states in New England observe and celebrate Patriot’s Day. Parts of the South have Mardi Gras. What does the Northwest have? … Anyone? … <crickets chirping> …Yeah, I couldn’t think of anything either. Oh well.
So there you have it, I hope you enjoyed my thoughts and experiences with Mardi Gras this year. I’m not sure what or when my next post will be. We plan to do some more sightseeing in Memphis and Nashville in the coming weeks when my parents come into town. The weather is also beginning to warm again and I’m starting to notice some unique seasonal changes. It’s a bit bittersweet but our time here is starting to wind down as we have only about 3-more months before embarking on our return trip to Seattle. Thanks for expressing interest in our journey to this point. ’Til next time…