The title of the article catches the eye. Parades May Have Been Cancelled, But True Fans Are Still Celebrating “Yardi Gras.” COVID-19 has made huge changes to the parades, the costumes and the beads of Mardi Gras. The long-standing tradition continues this year in the front yards of people rather than in the streets. New twists and turns are designed to compensate for the pandemic.
Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” refers to the events of the Carnival celebrations, which actually begin after the feast of Epiphany. Technically, Mardi Gras is just the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Season of Lent, but in many areas Mardi Gras has become a weeklong event.
Mardi Gras has become synonymous with the city of New Orleans and the debauchery that can be found on Bourbon Street. The celebration throughout the city is known as the “Greatest Free Show on Earth” featuring outdoor picnics, street musicians and make-shift marching bands, and food vendors. From the Twelfth Night when Christmas ends to the first moment of Ash Wednesday, the Carnival season harbors a spirit of magic and mystery.
As a response to COVID, there are no official traditional Carnival parades in 2021. Public health officials believe that last year’s Mardi Gras made New Orleans an early hotspot for the spread of the virus. A study estimates that a single person brought the virus to New Orleans resulting in over 50,000 cases spread because of the parades. This year, virtual parades, houses decorated like floats, and the Joan of Arc stationary parade will highlight the day.
The American version of Mardi Gras actually originated in Mobile, Alabama, 15 years before the tradition began in New Orleans. Last year, Mobile’s Mystics of Time parade had 138,600 people watching a parade with 19 floats. From Galveston to Pensacola, the Gulf Coast is alive with celebrations of the Carnival season. Mobile hosts parades almost every night during the entire season.
In Mobile this year, hundreds and hundreds of homes are decorated for the season, with themes and elaborate displays on their porches and in their front yards. People are encouraged to walk or drive by, enjoying the socially-distanced scenery.
Few know that one of the nation’s largest Mardi Gras celebrations is only about four hours away from Southern Indiana. The parties in St. Louis are also linked to the founding of the community by French fur traders back in 1764. French customs are alive in the city, and the Soulard District comes alive during Mardi Gras. A pet parade, softball tournament, 5K run, wine and beer tasting, and a Cajun cook-off highlight the events.
Traditions abound during Mardi Gras. True revelers know to wear festive costumes, or at least dress in purple, green and gold. The colors can be traced to the first Rex parade in New Orleans in 1872. A proclamation by the King of Carnival that year proclaimed that balconies could be draped in purple, green and gold. The King did not explain why, but since every kingdom must have a flag with colors, the colors stuck. Interestingly, Louisiana colleges LSU (purple and gold) and Tulane (green) adopted the color choices.
Flambeaux is another Mardi Gras tradition that has even become an art form. From the French word for “flame,” flambeaux were needed for revelers to see the Carnival parades which originally were held at night. The first official flambeaux lit the way in 1857. The flambeaux carried wooden torches burning pine-tar rags on long poles. The torches turned into a spectacle in themselves as those carrying them would wave and twirl the flaming sticks while dancing down the streets in the parade.
King cakes is another tradition of the festivities. According to Roman Catholic Church traditions, the three wise men saw Jesus on Jan. 6th, known as the Twelfth Night or the Epiphany. The word “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word meaning “to show.” The celebrations include a dessert featuring a “king cake.” Each king cake has a tiny baby hidden inside. The babies are plastic today, but at one time they were porcelain or gold.
Originally, king cakes were a simple ring of dough with a few decorations. The dough is braided and baked. Finally the top of the cake is covered with icing and toppings in traditional Mardi Gras colors. The purple represents justice, green stands faith, and the gold puts forth the idea of power. Bakeries use their creativity to top their cakes with different flavors and colors of cream cheese and fruit fillings.
Perhaps the tradition of the Mardi Gras can be re-imagined after the pandemic. Beads thrown from floats and balconies have been prized commodities for decades. The Ann Arbor Ecology Center produced a research study a little over a year ago that found most Mardi Gras beads are made from refurbished electronic and computer equipment. Chinese companies take the materials gathered from countries around the world, including the United States, crush and melt them into beads, cover them in shiny lead paint and ship them to countries which use the beads for celebrations.
Eco-friendly companies have begun producing better materials locally. Float krewes that are concerned have begun to throw wooden doubloon coins that people can cash in with businesses. Popeye’s chicken restaurants have been successful several times with coins. Local coffee and jambalaya companies have done similar substitutions.
From the Catbird Seat, we are so ready for the problems of the pandemic to subside and things to turn back to normal. Perhaps we can do “normal” a step better, and recreate traditions which give better thought to the safety of both people and nature. Could this be a way we can celebrate the Derby and Thunder this year?