Transitions of a different sort

Last week I spent a day taking down and putting away all of our holiday stuff. It is always a bit of a letdown (okay – a BIG letdown) for me to let go of the Christmas season, both the spiritual and secular aspects to the holiday, but this year the poignancy is meshed with a lot of uncertainty.

In years past, I could always put stuff away with the thoughts of what it will be like to get it back out next Christmas, and sort of look back and ahead at the same time, projecting what might be going on the next year. Even our last year in Minnesota, knowing that we would be moving to New Orleans, I had a mixed sense of closure in letting go of the seven Christmases celebrated with family in our big old house in Marshall, while looking forward to starting new traditions with our traditional stuff in a new locale and new culture.

This time around, I have a feeling of detachment I haven’t felt before. The house we have lived in since moving to New Orleans in the summer of ’08 is a rental, and I don’t see us renewing our lease for year three. Last year, we set up the tree and decorations, but were gone to Minnesota most of the month, so we really didn’t do much Christmas time in our own house. This year, not being able to head north, was different – at least having our Christmas things made it seem more like Christmas – even with the palm trees, muted green/brown grass and shirt-sleeve temps.

Things are uncertain right now; my unsettled job status, being renters, a half-dozen other things. I don’t know where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing next Christmastime and it’s an odd feeling for me. Usually uncertainty doesn’t bother me – hell, I usually thrive and revel in the anticipation of ‘what’s next?’ – but putting the last box of Christmas stuff into the attic yesterday has me in an odd frame of mind. I wouldn’t really say I was sad, or even melancholy, really – just…unsettled. That is a very unusual feeling and situation for me.

But it helps to have distractions.

The post-holiday ‘blahs’ aren’t a big part of the culture here in New Orleans – there is no time for it; as soon as you toss the Christmas trees to the curb, you put up the Mardi Gras decorations. Many people I know here say (and I have observed this throughout our neighborhood) they simply drag out the Mardi Gras decorations with the empty Christmas decorations boxes, and just make the switch the first week of the new year: front doors that in the morning were adorned with pine green, red holly and big red bow wreaths are, by afternoon, sporting large Mardi Gras wreaths – various greenery emblazoned with ribbons of traditional Mardi Gras purple, yellow and green, along with other symbols of the season including harlequin masks, sequined balls, and beads…lots, and lots and LOTS of Mardi Gras beads. Plus, when they put a wreath on a door here, for whatever season, it is usually a BIG wreath. Nothing small.

This is all in preparation for the start of Mardi gras season –beginning with the ‘Twelfth Night’ on January sixth. This particular day has all sorts of interesting historical and religious connotations: for many Christians, it marks the true end of Christmas. If you are the more secularly oriented, January sixth is the day that your true love gives you the last load of holiday offerings, up to and including the final van loads of pipers, drummers, partridges, et al. Others more spiritual and reverent celebrate the day as ‘Epiphany’ – when Western Christians commemorate the visitation of the Biblical Magi to the Baby Jesus, i.e., his manifestation to the Gentiles.

They take all of this much more seriously (or at least publically) here than I can ever recall in my Midwestern upbringing and other travels. So much so, that the Wikipedia definition of Epiphany lists (among celebrational customs in Europe, Asia and elsewhere) a separate entry just for this region of the U.S.:

“In Louisiana, Epiphany is the beginning of the Carnival season, during which it is customary to bake King Cakes. The one who finds the doll (or bean) in the cake must provide the next king cake. The interval between Epiphany and Mardi gras is sometimes known as “king cake season.”
The Carnival season begins on King’s Day (Epiphany), and there are many traditions associated with that day in Louisiana and along the Catholic coasts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. King cakes are first sold then, Carnival krewes begin having their balls on that date, and the first New Orleans krewe parades in street cars that night.”

And of course, this being New Orleans, they take it just a step or two further: by celebrating Joan of Arc’s birthday. Joan’s birthday is celebrated with with requisite parade (complete with costumed Joan on horseback), church services, and other merriment. Joan is, of course, officially titled, the Maid of Orleans – Orleans, FRANCE. Go figure.

This particular ‘holiday’ has traditionally been fairly low-key, with the parades, costumes and large crowds a fairly recent phenomenon. You may wonder (as I once did ) ‘why’? I can only respond with the very typical Nawlins’ response that I receive when asking the question:

“Why wouldn’t you throw a city-wide 598th birthday celebration for Joan of Arc”?

Silly me.

Not that I am making fun of Mardi gras and all that it entails – far from it; any holiday that gets us out of school for a full week has value for that alone. It is a fun and festive time, and as much as the revlry notes the season, the repentence part of it when Lent begins is taken just as seriously.

Last year (our first Mardi gras as residents) we made 12 of the 56 scheduled Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. This year, understanding the ins-and-outs of scheduling parade visits, it would be nice to make 15 of the 51 scheduled parades.

We’ll see.

Of course, a lot of that depends on how football season goes over the next two weeks. The Saints are hosting their first NFC championship this weekend, and should they beat the Vikings, and go on to the Super Bowl (the first official weekend of Carnival, BTW), and win that…well, by golly – you’d have to have some sort of victory parade, right? When I have mentioned in various conversations with locals that it would seem logical to combine said (theoretical) victory parade with one of the already slated Mardi Gras processions, I have been met with quizzical looks and a common response:

“No…this is New Orleans. It would have to be its own parade”.

I guess we’ll see what happens. The beat goes on.

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