Carnival, the Saints and the Greek God who Failed Us

Because Mardi Gras was late this year, March 4, the gap between the end of Carnival and the celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) and the Sicilian feast of St. Joseph (March 19) was much shorter. Some Carnival float builders barely had time to sweep out their generic St. Patrick’s floats.

I treasure the celebrations of both the Irish and the Italians; I just wish their parades would not have become such Mardi Gras knockoffs. Once again we see floats, usually a bit tattered, with riders, minus the dress codes that govern Mardi Gras and often non-costumed and non-masked, throwing stuff. It all looks a little sloppy.

As for the Irish, the best parade takes place each St. Patrick’s Day evening at Finn McCool’s on Banks Street. Billed as the “World’s Shortest Parade” a St. Patrick’s figure and his small but dedicated entourage, accompanied by bagpipes, walks from out the bar’s back door to the front door, back into the bar and in and out a few more time. This parade is quick, but it is original and it is funny. Give me that over watching a ratty recycled float pass by. 

What goes on at Finn McCool’s and other Irish hot spots is a truer celebration than some of the bigger parades. People are laughing, drinking even engaging in a poetry contest, all within only a few blocks of where Endymion passed a few weeks earlier. Anyone who saw that parade doesn’t need to see cheap imitations. Finn’s keeps the celebrations fresh and to me that is mc—cool.

Of all the week's festivities the most culturally pure is the Sicilian tradition of St. Joseph's Day altars. The custom began in Sicily but is barely practiced there anymore. New Orleans, which received the largest Sicilian immigration in the nation, has become the global epicenter for preserving the altars. Unlike St. Patrick’s Day, which is really an excuse to party, there are spiritual underpinnings to St. Joseph's Day and the tradition incorporates the mission of feeding the poor.

Since so many early Sicilian grocery stores were in low-income neighborhoods they had a large black clientele. The happy result was an intermingling of Sicilian culture with that of the Mardi Gras Indians. That’s why what is now called “Super Sunday” is always on a weekend near St. Joseph's Day. On that day the Indians, many of whom stayed inside this past Mardi Gras because of the bad weather, make their second scheduled appearance of the year. This is real stuff that blends spirituality with urban neighborhood ritual. That’s what we need more of.

Speaking of the weather, since Carnival so often honors mythology, if there was once god that failed us it was Zeus, the Greek’s guardian of the weather. There have been cold weather on Mardi Gras and there has been rainy weather on Mardi Gras, but seldom has the weather been cold and rainy. It was a miserable day. (Perhaps Zeus was angry because the Jefferson Parish parade named in his honor is now defunct.) And don’t let anyone utter the cliché that the rain, “didn’t dampen the spirits.” I have it on good authority that rain does indeed dampen spirits or at least prevents it from coming out.

We should have seen it coming at the beginning of the season. On the evening of Twelfth Night the temperature dipped to 27 degrees. Zeus failed us at both ends of the Carnival. Here’s hoping the weather is better next year. May Zeus be replaced by a more caring god.


BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and online.

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