The celebration culminates on Mardi Gras.

By Colleen McMillar
December 23, 2020
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It’s that time of year when the smells of cut pine and cinnamon still linger in the air, but the attention of south Louisiana abruptly shifts. Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, celebrated on January 6, signifies the official end of the Yuletide season, a day that on many Christian calendars marks the wise men’s arrival to pay homage to the Christ child.

It also heralds the start of the Carnival season, the pre-Lenten celebration that culminates on Mardi Gras (which is French for Fat Tuesday).

Credit: Daniel Grill/Getty Images

Yes, that’s right. Carnival, with its king cakes, crawfish boils, and brass bands, is a season, the length of which is determined by the moveable feast of Easter. Mardi Gras, the last hurrah before lent begins, is one day, specifically, the one before Ash Wednesday. (This year, Fat Tuesday falls on February 16.)

While the rest of the world is packing away the red and green of Christmas, New Orleans is donning the purple, green, and gold of Carnival and preparing for the weeks-long revelry that precedes the weeks-long abstinence of Lent.

The Big Easy isn’t the only place in the United States where this happens. Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, and towns all over south Louisiana put their own unique spin on Carnival. Those places can rightfully boast about their Carnival cred, but, New Orleans far and away owns top billing.

The city’s celebration, fine-tuned over three centuries, is steeped in traditions, many of which outsiders—and even many natives—never see. Take, for instance, the formal ball that for 150 years has opened every Carnival season, a soirée hosted by the Twelfth Night Revelers and their leader, the Lord of Misrule.

Not that you must understand the nuances of Carnival to enjoy it. In a nutshell: Carnival is a nonstop indulgence in food and drink, indulgence in fanciful parades and costumes, and, above all, indulgence in tradition. It’s the go-ahead-eat-more-pralines, get-it-all-out-of-your-system period before austere days ahead, but also the reward for making it through another year.

No doubt, many of the long-standing traditions will have to be suspended or altered in 2021 because of the pandemic. Already, the city of New Orleans has announced that, for the first time in 42 years, Mardi Gras parades will be canceled. But resilient residents likely will find a way to responsibly acknowledge the season, to incorporate masks into costumes, to cook for friends and family, and to savor cocktails while socially distancing.

Carnival, with its rallying cry, “laissez les bon temps rouler (let the good times roll),” has never just boiled down to an events calendar. It’s a spirit. Gumbos will still simmer. Etouffee will still braise on the stove. Friends will see friends. It just won’t be elbow-to-elbow this year.

And the joie de vivre doesn’t have to be confined to the aforementioned regions of the country. Anyone can join in and capture a flavor of Louisiana from wherever you are. So, get ready to turn up the music, shake the cocktail and stir the roux—for however long as it takes.

It’s Carnival time. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

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