Memoirs of a Mardi Gras maniac

Mardi Gras fell on March 8 in 2011, which is the second latest day it can fall on.

By Frank Michael McCormack Jr.

I’m not ashamed to admit it: Carnival season is one of my favorite times of the year. Some of my favorite New Orleans memories and traditions are tied to Mardi Gras. And with Mardi Gras 2011 now in the rearview mirror, I’ve been reflecting on some of my Carnival memories from the past few years. These are just a few:

First impressions

For all the hardships faced in 2005, Jennifer and I will always remember that year for our first taste of Carnival. It was a season of introductions – to King Cakes, to parades, and to leftover bags of beads. Just going to the parades was an adventure to us newcomers, not to mention the colorful floats, awesome throws and epic people watching.

Ground rules

I had a professor once who, when introducing Mardi Gras to students from outside Louisiana, said, “When it comes to Mardi Gras, you find what you look for.”

Coconut, King Cake and lace

In 2006, though still exiled in Chattanooga, Tenn., we were determined to make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Just six months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was still a wreck in February 2006. But Mardi Gras gave the city a chance to prove that things really were getting better, and it was a way for us to prove to ourselves that we were on the mend as well.

We set out that Mardi Gras day with one goal: to get a Zulu coconut. On Mardi Gras day, the Krewe of Zulu parades first and is followed by Rex, King of Carnival. Zulu is famous, among other things, for its painted coconuts that riders pass out.

Jen and I worked hard to talk rider after rider into bestowing upon us a blessed coconut. We were coming up empty. Jennifer tried to charm a six year old girl on one float. When a mischievous grin appeared on the girl’s face, we thought she was about to pass Jen a coconut. Instead, the little girl dropped some lacy Zulu underwear into Jen’s upheld hands. Not quite what she was expecting.

Farther down the parade route, I offered the same girl’s dad a King Cake in exchange for a coconut. Apparently they only had one left and it was one the little girl had decorated. So the dad handed the cake to the girl, who carefully examined it for a couple minutes, then gave an approving nod. Success! We had a coconut and some underwear to boot.

Familiar faces and places

So much about Mardi Gras revolves around family, friends and traditions. We only have seven Carnivals under our belt, but even we have a few. 1) Our parking spot. It’s amazing. Same spot every year. I don’t understand why no one else has discovered this spot. But I’ll never tell. 2) Every year we set up around the Lutheran church near St. Charles and Jackson Avenues. We see the same people each year, like the dress guy and his wife who knows everyone in Zulu, the Blues Brother, Captain America and Wonder Woman. 3) Our lunch spot: the Popeye’s on Paris Avenue. We love it because many of the Zulu paraders show up after the parade.

Spike Lee and Lombardi Gras

The Saint’s Super Bowl win in February 2010 jumpstarted a unique Mardi Gras. From the victory parade that featured signature floats from all the big parades to Saints coaches and players riding in the parades, it was a Carnival like no other. Mardi Gras already carries a spirit of unity among the paraders and people along the parade route. The Super Bowl championship only heightened that feeling of unity. Everyone came out to see “Our Boys” on parade. We even ran into Spike Lee, who was documenting Lombardi Gras.

From King Cakes to fried fish

Mardi Gras is also special for what comes afterwards, particularly with regard to the menu. Lent, which begins on the Wednesday after Fat Tuesday, signals seasonal Friday fish fries and superb St. Patrick’s Day parades. At the Irish, Italian (and Islenos) parades, watch for flying potatoes, cabbages and other produce. You can eat for weeks off of what you catch. Look for a fish fry at your neighborhood Catholic church.

Connecting Carnival to Lent

Mardi Gras may be one of my favorite times of the year, but it’s Carnival’s place in the broader liturgical calendar that I especially enjoy. I love having so much of the year organized around the story line of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.

When it comes to Mardi Gras, though, people too often settle for one of two extremes.

On one side are those who object to Mardi Gras altogether and believe that any parading puts you on the path to personal disaster. These people often claim they’re pro-Lent but anti-Carnival.

On the other side are those who revel in Mardi Gras with no observance of Lent.

I for one think the two go together quite well. It’s hard to observe Lent – a time of introspection, penitence and self denial – without first feasting. And the Carnival celebration lacks much of its meaning without being juxtaposed with a sober appraisal of one’s relationship with God.

The power of both lies in the contrast of one to the other.

For those who wholeheartedly object to the feasting and revelry of Mardi Gras, let’s just be honest: For most of us, everyday is Fat Tuesday. We all live indulgent lives compared to most of the world. Maybe it’s good to revel in that for a season each year to remind us of our tendency toward greediness and also to celebrate how precious life is.

After all, each day we live in a world where Jesus was born in a manger, yet we set aside a specific season each year to commemorate it. And each day we live in a world where Jesus was raised from the dead, yet we dedicate one Sunday each year to celebrate it.

And each day we live in a world full of sunshine and friends and food and family – all of which are priceless gifts from God. With that in view, Carnival season takes on a much deeper meaning, especially when teamed with Lent.

On the other hand, many shy away from dedicating the 40 days of Lent to serious, honest, inward examination and some kind of self denial. Seeking to see ourselves as God sees us, after all, can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable. But Lenten introspection should also remind us of God’s love and motivate us to a deeper relationship with him.

During Lent, some people deny themselves a favorite treat, like chocolate or ice cream. Others fast from all food or from meat on Fridays. Those things are certainly admirable (and often very difficult), but don’t forget to connect the spiritual dots. We deny ourselves simple pleasures during Lent to point us to Jesus, who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross,” as Philippians 2 says. Lent leads us first to Good Friday, then to Easter Sunday.

So as we embark on this Lenten season, consider this challenge from New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond. Archbishop Aymond has called Christians to a threefold observance of Lent this year. First, identify something from which to abstain. Second, identify a new action or discipline to begin that will deepen your relationship with God. And third, devote time to pray specifically for the issue of violence in the New Orleans community.

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Click below to see some sights and sounds from Mardi Gras:

A fond farewell to the Christmas lights

By Frank Michael McCormack

On my list of childhood traumas, taking down Christmas decorations sits near the top.

I’d beg to drag out the decorations as early we could, and I’d fight to leave them up – permanently if possible. And to hear my parents tell it, I never handled it well when the tree would get disassembled, stuffed in its box and stowed in the attic.

“No disassemble.”

Over the years, the pain of the after-Christmas takedown has lessened, but it’s still a sad day when the flashing lights, wreaths, inflatable snowmen, trees and nativities start to disappear.

And so it was with great excitement this year that I finally caught on to one of the traditions associated with the Feast of the Epiphany, which is January 6. As it turns out, Christmas decorations can remain in place through Twelfth Night, January 5, but must be gone by the next morning.

But that personal epiphany got me to thinking about Epiphany. What is it? Where’d it come from? And what does it mean for me?

DIGGING DEEPER: GETTING FROM CHRISTMAS TO EASTER

A New Orleans style king cake

First, a look at the current calendar of events:

Today, we celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25. Christmas season runs through Twelfth Night, January 5. The days between Christmas and Twelfth Night comprise the 12 Days of Christmas.

The next day, January 6, is known as Epiphany or King Day. It signals the official end of the Christmas season and the start of Carnival, a time of celebration that runs through Fat Tuesday (the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday). Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a time of penitence and prayer that ends with Good Friday and the Easter Sunday celebration.

From Christmas to Easter, Christians travel the course of Jesus’ life, from his birth in a manger to his death and resurrection.

And it appears that Christians celebrated Epiphany very early on.

“Epiphany was actually celebrated earlier and more consistently and more widely than Christmas in the early church. The earliest date that we know of for Epiphany was 217,” said Rex Butler, a professor at New Orleans Baptist Seminary who specializes in early church history.

Initially, followers of Jesus celebrated four events on Epiphany: Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the visit of the Magi (‘kings’ who traveled from the East, following a star, to worship Jesus and give him gifts), the baptism of Jesus and Jesus’ first miracle (turning water to wine at a wedding). Each of these events is a way in which Jesus was revealed to the world, hence the word “epiphany.” In Greek, “epiphany” is the verb for “to manifest” or “to reveal” and carries the image of light. Jesus and his gospel continue to be that light to the world.

In time, Christians in the western branch of the church began to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25 while continuing to recall the other three events on January 6. For more on why Jesus’ birth is celebrated on December 25, check out this article from Biblical Archaeology magazine: http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp. In some countries, Christians actually exchange gifts on Epiphany, not Christmas, in honor of the Wise Men’s gifts to Jesus.

Over time, traditions for observing Epiphany developed. In Europe, edible portions of Christmas decorations were taken down on Twelfth Night and eaten during the Epiphany feast. Some would have “burning of the green” celebrations where Christmas decorations were burned in a bonfire, in keeping with the light theme of the season.

Soon, ‘king cakes’ with beans hidden inside would be eaten on Epiphany. Whoever found the bean would be the ‘king’ of the Epiphany feast, regardless of the person’s social standing in the household. This tradition points to many of the ‘upside down’ aspects of the gospel story (the Son of God being born in a stable; ‘kings’ of the East coming to worship an infant born to a common family in a foreign, powerless country; and Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9 that ‘anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all’).

Fast forward to New Orleans in 2011 and Epiphany carries with it a few local innovations. We still have king cakes, but there’s a whole commercial industry surrounding them now. Randazzo’s, Haydel’s, McKenzie’s, and Gambino’s are all bakeries that claim to have the best king cakes.

Instead of beans, New Orleans king cakes usually have small babies inside. If you get the baby, you don’t get to rule the feast but you are responsible for bringing the king cake to the next party. And you’re allowed to eat king cakes only from Epiphany through Fat Tuesday (though I suspect some people secretly eat king cake into Lent).

To mark the start of Carnival in New Orleans, the group “Phunny Phorty Phellows” rides down St. Charles Avenue in a streetcar on Epiphany to officially start the Mardi Gras season. Just watch this video and you’ll see why “Phunny” is a perfect name: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BaVNUPv97g&feature=related.

From Wise Men to the Phunny Phorty Phellows. Only in New Orleans.

GIVING AND RECEIVING: THE TRUE GIFT OF EPIPHANY

Most of the time, it’s the gifts from the Wise Men to Jesus that we focus on. Matthew 2:11 records their gift presentation this way: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

All three gifts were fit for a king, but with Jesus they took on much more than just kingly significance. Gold pointed to Jesus’ kingship, frankincense to his priesthood and myrrh, used in burial preparations, to his future suffering and death.

But it’s Jesus’ gift to the Magi – and to all of humanity – that is the true gift of Epiphany. The baby born in Bethlehem was the Son of God who came to make a way for people to be reconciled to God. And that’s cause for celebration!

So as you enjoy this parade season, remember the true cause for your celebration. And then, during Lent, remember the cost of that celebration.

But that’s a blog for another day.