The OTHER holiday season

“On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…twelve drummers drumming…”

Usually, by the time the twelfth day of Christmas, also known as Epiphany, rolls around, we’ve had as much of the holidays as we can stand. We kicked off the holidays with Thanksgiving, and since then, we’ve stuffed ourselves on cookies, fruitcake, and spiced nuts, and we’ve drunk way too much eggnog. We’ve had parties and exchanged presents and had low productivity at work. Now, after New Year’s, it’s time to cut back on everything, put our noses to the grindstone, try to keep our new resolutions. In short, it’s time to practice an ascetic lifestyle.

But imagine, if you can, that today is the kickoff of the holiday season. After today, there will be rounds of parties with too much food and alcohol, live music, dances, and parades with outrageous and exorbitant costumes. For about seven weeks, houses will be decorated with lights and wreaths and colorful banners, and children will look forward to a couple of days off school. And imagine that when it is all over, it will be time to practice an ascetic lifestyle.

I’m describing the Carnival season, as it was and still is, in New Orleans.

Mardi Gras is not a one-day event, it is the culmination of a whole season that begins on the Epiphany, January 6th. Today, in New Orleans, the mayor and heads of the Rex and Zulu krewes officially kicked off the season with statements, live music, and king cakes. I counted over 55 parades on the 12-day schedule, fewer than previous years, but still more parades than any other city in the U.S. has all year. The floats survived (is that why they’re called “floats?”), and the New Orleaneans who man them are still as special and amazing and different as they were in 2004, when I lived there. After what they’ve gone through, they’re even more amazing.

I have a friend who’s raising money for the New Orleans Musician’s Clinic, a unique not-for-profit organization that provides medical care for musicians. The t-shirts he’s selling say it all: “New Orleans: Bent, but not broken.”

I saw two sides to New Orleans in the news today. On one side, the Phuny Phorty Phellows will commandeer a streetcar at 7 pm tonight on Canal Street. They’ll have a big party aboard and share two king cakes, one for the men and one for the women. The man and woman who find the two babies hidden inside the cakes will be the Boss and Queen of the krewe.

On the other side of the news, they they identified the body of Barry Cowsill, a member of the band that inspired the TV show “The Partridge Family.” He was last heard from on September 1st, and he probably died from injuries sustained during or after the hurricane.

I’ve been thinking that the rest of the country needs to learn about Mardi Gras, and how to celebrate Carnival season. It’s not just a New Orleans tradition — the holiday is celebrated throughout Louisiana. One little-known fact is that Mobile, Alabama has an even older Mardi Gras tradition than New Orleans.

As a matter of fact, let’s lobby our elected officials and make Mardi Gras a national holiday. Not only so we could have parades and celebrations in every city, but to give us a chance to remember the thousands who were lost in Hurricane Katrina.

One of the symbols of Mardi Gras is the comedy/tragedy symbol, also used to represent theater: Two masks, one happy and the other sad. For months, in New Orleans, all we saw was the sad face. Now that Carnival is here, I’m starting to see signs of the happy one, too. Let’s all smile as we celebrate Mardi Gras, wherever we are.
Comedy and tragedy masks