Shrove Tuesday is just next week, but the celebration leading up to it truly began on January 6. When the Christmas tree comes down, a new set of traditions gets underway for someone like me, born and reared in New Orleans.
Mardi Gras is not only about catching those prized beads or collector pieces from certain parades and krewes (social organizations) like Muses, Rex or Zulu, but it is the coming out, or debutante, season for many young women in New Orleans.
The majority of us Sacred Heart girls and friends from neighboring all-girls schools have recently turned 50 and that milestone reunited our friendships once again. We pulled out all the stops while we each crossed yet another threshold to maturity.
Each celebration was a jovial walk down memory lane, and also brought on the harsh realization that we are old enough to have children in college, the ripe age for the debutante season! (I am not there yet with two young boys, but my elder son Kemp is breaking into young adulthood with an introduction to Cotillion these past few weeks. He is learning to be poised, dance and treat young ladies with respect. And sporting a bow tie came as part of the package.)
This year is a special one as one of my best of friends, Joanie Hartson Mulkin, whom I have known since I was four and is truly like my sister, is having her daughter, Matilde, make her debut this year.
I was summoned with an elaborate invitation to the ball, seat cards, Queen’s supper and a special viewing of the Matilde before she makes that procession for all to gasp in awe at her beauty. She will not speak, but will bid us a nod or wave of her scepter in acknowledgment. A few chuckles from us are thrown in sparingly, like beads off a float, because we all recall the days when she did not want to get out of bed in high-school, or in her earlier days, when she would come home smelly and grungy after a sports game. It is the colorful customs and pageantry of this special day that make it all worthwhile to be in New Orleans for 36 hours to observe, laugh and cry at these occasions. So many friends and family will come together in small gatherings starting at 5 p.m. then lasting through the night until 1 in the morning. This is what it is. This is what we do. This is our heritage. Then we gather again the next day for lunch with those not going to the next night’s ball. Some go to three to four in a week and follow the same ritual.
God certainly knew what He was doing in making Lent follow Mardi Gras. HA! As New Orleanians are so consumed with the final week of the season, it is a blessing to have Lent as a buffer before the next celebration. We all need an excuse to cut out of drinking and eating for 40 days so we can reset and refuel. I have seven days to go before I pull the plug on the juice, so here I am with my Diet Sprite in hand while on the plane thinking about the celebration ahead.
I arrive in New Orleans and I am swooped up by my dearest friend Karen Gundlach, who then pins me with the Rex pendant. We are off to the beauty parlor for a little up-do then begin to get dressed for the ball. A whirlwind of fun and then I am back to DC on Thursday night.
Mardi Gras does not have to be celebrated only in NOLA, and my husband David and I make sure our children, neighbors, friends, and the Arlington community get a taste of our home. It may not be pageantry, but it surely is revelry. When the huge tent goes up, the beer and drinks are poured, smells of your mama’s style cooking is spooned into a bowl, there is no place a person from Louisiana would rather be than at Bayou Bakery for the annual Mardi Gras block party. Our kinfolk come out in droves to party on for the Shrove. We have that common bond that makes us so unique, and others relish the feeling it brings.
I have decorated a float for the past three years to give my boys the joy and experience of the carnival. This year, I am well stocked with beads (over 1,000) and should never run out. No matter rain or shine, hot or cold, costumed or not, if you are a true New Orleanian, you do not stop for anything and continue to make Mardi Gras day our holiday. So mark March 4 on your calendar to don some purple, green and gold and I guarantee you’ll have a good time. That’s Naturally N’Awlins! (in the words of the deceased but still much loved Frank Davis.)