I was raised in no less than seven houses in seven different cities, including Elgin, Illinois; Arlington, Texas; Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Memphis. I only spent two years—1976 and 1977—in Lafayette, Louisiana, although when people ask where I’m from, I tend to save time by naming Louisiana as my native state. After all, my parents were both born there to families who worked in the oil business, and—separately—traversed the state, moving to dots on the map like Bayou Sally and Paradis and Houma for a year, where their daddies toiled in the oil fields before packing up and moving on again. (Incidentally, they anonymously crossed paths for two decades, before finally meeting at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in the mid-1960s.) For our immediate family, Mardi Gras (translated: Fat Tuesday) was always a big holiday whether or not we resided in the South. It signified gumbo and good times, the end of Epiphany and the coming of Lent.
Both my folks have memories of putting on their Sunday clothes and piling into the car for a trip to New Orleans to catch throws at the big parades hosted by krewes like Orpheus and Comus. I began making my own trips to New Orleans in my late teens, eschewing tourist areas like Bourbon Street for a spot on the more family friendly parade routes along St. Charles in Uptown. Personified by Mardi Gras Indians cloaked in impossibly huge feathered costumes that serve as living art installations, flambeaux who dance in the street with kerosene tanks strapped to their backs, and brass bands that stretch out behind the floats as far as the eye can see, New Orleans during Mardi Gras is unlike any other place on the planet.
For a few years after my parents relocated to the Alabama Gulf Coast, I continued visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Then, Katrina happened, and I tried on Lower Alabama for size. I was surprised to learn that on U.S. shores, the Carnival tradition actually originated in Mobile in 1703. Horse drawn parade floats were introduced onto the streets of Mobile in 1840, while the Mystick Krewe of Comus, New Orleans’ oldest krewe, was actually formed by six Mobile businessmen who’d relocated to the Crescent City. The Civil War temporarily halted Mardi Gras celebrations in the southern port cities, although in 1866, while Mobile was still under Union occupation, resident Joe Cain donned a Chickasaw Indian costume, dubbed himself Slacabamorinico and paraded through downtown, reinstating the annual tradition.
Newer, but already cherished Mardi Gras traditions for my family include Friday night parades in either Daphne or Fairhope, a city founded as a utopian colony in 1894. On Saturday, we awake early, eat King Cake for breakfast, then pack a picnic lunch for the car. We drive cross-country to Point Clear on Mobile Bay, where we tailgate for three or four hours before the Krewe of the Mullet Mates march down the county road, thick woods on one side of the street and the bright blue bay on the other. Much of this parade would be considered rinky-dink by New Orleans or Mobile standards, but there’s something about the homespun quality of hand decorated floats, built atop flatbed trailers or boats attached to boat trailers, that I love. Afterwards, we race down to the beach highway that stretches between Alabama and Florida for yet another parade.
On Sunday, we go out for brunch, then walk to the end of my mother’s boat dock to catch throws tossed from boats in a water parade on the Bon Secour River. Later that night, we’ll sort our hard-won beads (purple signifies justice, green signifies faith, and gold signifies power), doubloons, plastic cups and Moon Pies, watch the news for footage of Joe Cain’s Merry Widows, a secret society of women who wear black dresses and veils, form a procession into Mobile’s Church Street Graveyard, and weep and argue over which of them was loved by Cain the most.
All of the local schools are closed on Monday, or Lundi Gras, a family day with even more parades in Mobile and nearly every Alabama coastal town. And on Mardi Gras itself, my mama marches with an all-female krewe, dressed as a clown or, most recently, as a Chaplin-esque little tramp. By then, I’m usually paraded out, and on my way back up to Memphis to prepare for an abbreviated work week and, punctuated by a visit to church for Ash Wednesday, the 40 days of Lent that lie ahead.
Further reading about arcane and bizarre Mardi Gras traditions:
This blog is written by our wonderful and creative Andria Lisle Public Relations and Public Events Manager at the Brooks.