“Once upon a time, in the land of Serendip…”
This opening from a sixteenth century Italian folktale, Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo, has provided a uniquely English word: serendipity.
There’s no Latin origin, no Greek preface root, no Scripps National Spelling Bee “can you use it in a sentence” beyond that title. The pilgrimage of the three princes of Serendippo.
The story itself is a simple one — if any story involving a one-eyed, missing-tooth, limping camel is simple. The young men observe signs of the camel but never actually the camel itself.
Two centuries later the Serendippi became the serendipitous, with English author Horace Walpole crafting a description based on the actions of the princes. Walpole called serendipity “accidental sagacity,” that is, coming upon new discoveries without ever setting out to look for them.
With its lowered case, serendipity no longer was just the stuff of royalty.
Royalty becoming common, the youthful bringing insight, the greatest discoveries becoming accidental: Welcome back, Carnival. Welcome back, the season of serendipity.
(Editor’s note: the serendipity description originally also contained the phrase “one-eyed camels becoming dance troupe steppers” but apparently the long-past Serendippi and the new-wave Camel Toe Lady Steppers have different reference points. Anyway, the Gold Dusters will always be Team Serendipity, amirite?)
Last night, Jen and I welcomed the new year on Bienville, toasting Joanie on a Pony’s birthday (à ta santé!), discouraging her wood-kindling foes (unsuccessfully), and moving into the next realm (the chorus of angels prayerfully shuffling to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was a beautiful touch).
There is life after death Joan reminded the world-weary crowd.
There is Mardi Gras after pandemic.
While the celebration of St. Joan of Arc’s birthday on Kings Day can seem coincidental, I find it all serendipitous. Errol Laborde wrote this week about the deeper-set traditions of the day: the Phunny Phorty Phellows and the Twelfth Night Revelers. If you get your ticket punched at the Willow St. Streetcar Barn (I have not) or if you get the golden bean as a college junior (I have yet), those events undoubtedly bring great joy. For the rest of us, Joan steps into the fray, as she always does.
The Krewe of Joan of Arc also offers another serendipitous connection for our king-cake-heavy heads: Carnival moves to a religious beat. The procession from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday Eve follows an ecclesiastical route. If both the revelers and the religious miss that connection, it’s to the season’s detriment.
We do more than just throw a party; satire has the capacity to overthrow a broken order — a religious capacity. We do more than just say some private prayers; laughter has the capacity to awaken God’s joy in us — a reveling capacity. Joan of Arc holds hands with the reveler and the religious, bringing us closer than any self-help study or self-assured Novena. Joan, the saint of serendipity.
Appropriately, then, yesterday’s parade began with incense. Truly. After dozens of beak-masked plague doctors ceremonially swept the route clean, a single thurible walked ahead of the remaining marchers. In so many ways, often on a daily basis, our city needs to be reclaimed, restored, reconsecrated. If it can happen in parade form, it only reminds us of this need to march into personal form.
And after the incense (and the glowing Notre Dame windows and the courageous stilt walkers), it was all over.
We made it back from the 7 p.m. parade before the clock struck 8. Serendipity works like that, too, all together, all in a flash, all present and then all gone. But, like those Serendippo princes, the signs remain to keep the story told.
The last time we were in the French Quarter for a parade was Krewe du Vieux 2020. I have no real memory of the throws or the floats — all variations of a scatological theme (buckle up for your royal ride, Jen Avegno!). I do, however, remember the night’s ending with Carnival serendipity.
Amid the Chinese carnage of any parade’s conclusion, I spied Arthur Hardy walking down the block. Well, in my mind’s eye, he was floating. The Mardi Gras Guide come to life.
Drawing on the courage I had slowly accumulated over the course of the evening, I yelled out, “Hail, Arthur Hardy! Long may you reign!”
He turned and offered a royal, serendipitous wave.
The season of serendipity has returned home. Welcome back.
Not that a YouTube video could ever replace the real thing, but here is a brief montage from Joan’s 607th celebration.
And because I mentioned it, here is Leonard Cohen and his hymn.