The sounds of drumlines cadence interspersed with the faint wail of a siren. The smell of diesel fuel combined with wafts of hot dogs and hamburgers on barbecue pits. The sights of twinkling lights from the floats as the flames of the flambeaux catch the sequined costumes of the dance troupes as they prepare for their great walk down the avenue. The taste of peanuts and the grease of fried chicken and biscuits on my fingers.
This is the Mardi Gras of my childhood.
Even as an adult, I still find myself catapulted back to Carnival of seasons past whenever I smell Popeye’s or hear a siren. The first time I tried Coors Light (as an legal drinking adult, of course) the first memory that came to mind was the Endymion Saturdays of my youth watching my aunts and uncles dance to “Barefootin’” while we waited for the parade to begin on Orleans Avenue.
As a mother, the joy of experiencing my favorite time of year with and through my children’s eyes has already filled my heart with some of my most cherished memories of them. When reminiscing on the nostalgia of Mardi Gras from my childhood, it’s interesting to see the differences the Carnivals our children are experiencing. In no particular order…
Long gone are the days of plastic small beads that you had to unsnap to fit around your neck. When you got older and they no longer fit, it was cool to snap them around your head as a headbands or wrap around your wrists as bracelets. If you were one of the lucky ones that caught the sought-after strands of “pearls,” you may as well call yourself the queen (or king of Mardi Gras). Stuffed animals were second only to gold. Spears or rubber chickens were actually worth more than gold. Now I silently beg that the kids next to us will catch that giant stuffed bear. Also, it seems that if it doesn’t blink, whistle or do magic tricks, those pearls we went after like we were catching the winning play at the Superbowl are just basic throws for them.
Growing up I would sometimes just wear my school uniform to parades because that’s what I was wearing when my parents picked me up from school on the way to the route. As a teen, I thought I was hot stuff in my 5.7.9. jeans and Abercrombie & Fitch graphic tee (I can still smell the cologne that clung to it). I’ll be the first in line to admit guilt on the number of coordinated and Mardi Gras themed outfits I’ve purchased for my children (and myself). But if loving a perfectly placed pun on a Mardi Gras themed t-shirt is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.
I spent the better part of my childhood Mardi Gras subsisting on Popeye’s and king cake. Shelling peanuts from Schwegmann’s on the parade route was a way to pass the time waiting for the parade to begin. Let’s not forget the Elmer’s, Zapp’s and moon pies you could eat as snacks if you were lucky enough to catch from the floats. Thanks to wholesale grocery stores, my kids are laden with snacks far healthier and more diverse than the “dinner” of my Mardi Gras youth.
The only artwork on our ladder growing up was our last name written in permanent marker across the back. No cupholders, no soft pillowed seats, no Simon artwork. I’m not complaining though, the cupholder has been a genius addition to the ladder. And I for one am very happy to not have to pick splinters out of their fingers (or rear ends). Also, bead bags of my youth were free advertisement to whichever grocery store your mother shopped at – no monogrammed bead bags for us. (Again, guilty as charged. Our bead bag even has wheels to make for easier transportation).
My favorite Mardi Gras costume growing up was the year I went as a gypsy. My mother rummaged through our costume bin and put me in my angel costume from the nativity play, a long skirt, my brother’s pirate vest and a wrapped a scarf around my head. Voila! Instant gypsy. One year she cut holes in three outdoor rugs, threw a sombrero on my brother, sister and myself and boom, we were the three amigos. No Etsy. No Amazon. No burning the midnight oil to decoupage headresses. Your costume could be whatever you wanted it to be with very little effort. However, for this last minute mama, both Etsy and Amazon are lifesavers.
Like everything in life, Mardi Gras has evolved with the times. It’s bigger, it’s brighter, it’s more dazzling. I think it’s safe to say that the spirit of Mardi Gras has grown as well. I feel it when I watch the faces of children and adults alike light up when that first float turns the corner, the sound of the trumpets in first marching band as they lead the parade in their rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Instead of letting our spirit get muddled in the waters of Hurricane Katrina, we used it to grow back stronger and more grateful to celebrate all the traditions that makes our city one-of-a-kind.
Mardi Gras’ rich history and traditions are some of my favorites to pass along to my children and although modern conveniences have changed the game a bit, the joy and revelry of being a New Orleanian during Carnival have remained the same. See y’all on the route.