Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Iko Iko

Call it Mardis Gras, Fat Tuesday, Shrovetide, or Carnival, but today is the day; the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent is upon us. All over the world people will enjoy a night of revelry, eating, and drinking, before observing a period of abstinence leading to Easter on April 24 (and a whole bunch more will just do the revelry, eating, and drinking part). Hey, do you know how the date for Easter Sunday is determined? I didn't either, so I looked it up. Looks like it's three easy rules to remember:

  1. Easter is the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox

  2. This particular ecclesiastical full moon is the 14th day of a tabular lunation (new moon), and

  3. The vernal equinox is fixed as March 21

Uhhh, yeah. I think I'll just refer to my Dilbert calendar that I got from the Hallmark store. And if the crowds that are already assembling out on Canal Street here in New Orleans are any indicator, I am pretty sure I've got my dates correct. That's right, I am in The Big Easy on Fat Tuesday, and what could be more perfect than that? Did you know that the first Mardi Gras in the Americas dates back to 1699? That's right, a French expedition was dispatched by King Louis XIV to defend the new territory of Louisiane, and the day they made a first permanent encampment happened to be the Tuesday before Lent. With Mardis Gras already a French tradition, albeit much more sedate, they named the patch of land 60 miles down river from New Orleans Point du Mardi Gras - a name it still bears today. And while the first celebration of Carnival/Mardis Gras in the new world was held in Mobile, AL, it is New Orleans that has become the de-facto official American observance of this Catholic tradition.

In Nawlin's the Mardis Gras is the culmination of a season of celebrations. In fact, for the past two weeks there have been daily parades, balls, and other social events all over this town. But today is the finale, and a day for which the Crescent City is perhaps most famous. Traditions change and morph over time, and Mardis Gras is no exception. This is a decidedly American celebration in that it takes a French religious observance and blends it with Native American, West African, Creole, and English traditions, to create an altogether unique variant. The famously colored floats are manned by "krewes", which traditionally were secret social clubs with strict race, class, and gender restrictions. And while some of those barriers have been removed, the traditions established by the krewes remain. Among them are the tossing of "throws" to the spectators lining the parade route. Throws usually take the form of colorful plastic beads, doubloons (wooden or plastic coins), candy, flowers, and even peanuts. Every now and then - if you are really lucky - you might even catch a Moon Pie. That's right, the chocolate-covered, graham cracker and marshmallow sandwich. I have no idea how that got started, and it makes you think tossing Twinkies into the crowd cannot be too far off. Mmmm.... Twinkies.

But perhaps the most iconic symbol of the New Orleans parade are the Mardis Gras Indians. There are at least 30 recognized "tribes" and probably quite a few more independent operations as well. Consisting of primarily African Americans dressed in brightly feathered costumes - inspired by Native Americans and West Indians - the tribes have become an integral part of the Mardis Gras and most other parades in town. The history of the tribes is a bit unclear, but it certainly involves a coalition of the two groups that comprised the lowest rungs on the social order of the city throughout most of its history.
Each tribe has a hierarchy of chiefs, "spy boys", "flag boys", and medicine men. Traditionally the tribes clashed in often violent encounters along the parade route. The famous song "Jocko Mo" or "Iko Iko" tells the story of one such battle. Today the tribes compete against one another with their costumes, dances, and songs, without actually coming to blows. It is estimated that a chief's costume, which is usually homemade with the help of family and friends, costs about $5,000 and weighs almost 150 lbs. Are you kidding me?! And get this, most chiefs will not wear the same suit two years in a row. They completely disassemble it and reuse the feathers and beads in new configurations, but never the same suit twice. Meanwhile, I've been wearing the same tuxedo to weddings and formals since Gerald Ford was in office.

While in New Orleans I am renting a timeshare at Quarter House in the famous French Quarter. The building was designed by renowned New Orleans architect James Gallier in 1831, and has all of the amenities you'd expect from a modern resort: pools, spas, elevators, Internet, etc. It's the best of both worlds and it's no wonder RedWeek.com members rate it 4.5 stars. You can rent a 1 bedroom/1 bath unit, with a full kitchen, sleeper sofa, and living area for $100/night. Talkin' 'bout hey now!

Of course landing a rental the week of Mardis Gras is a tall order, and you are going to pay (I did anyway). But don't despair. You can get all of the booze, food, music, and revelry of the Mardis Gras when St. Patrick's Day parade rolls into town, just two short weeks from now. If that sounds like it conflicts with the idea of Lenten abstinence, I'd say you are probably right. But two weeks is a really long time to not indulge in a city like New Orleans. And besides, you could always claim that you had the 14th day of a tabular lunation marked incorrectly on your calendar... or something like that.

1 comment:

  1. Twinkies! That's "talkin' 'bout Hey Now! Have fun in the Big Easy.