I love Louisiana, so when I got the opportunity to visit southwest Louisiana for the biggest traditional holiday celebrated in the state, I jumped at it. The holiday is, of course, Mardi Gras, which came to Louisiana in 1699 through its French heritage. In fact, Mardi Gras means literally “Fat Tuesday” or the day before Ash Wednesday, which is part of the Catholic tradition around Easter.
The one thing I discovered about Mardi Gras in the southwest, is that it’s a gathering time for families and communities. I arrived on the preceding Saturday, so was able to participate in lots of memorable events.
My first stop was Jennings, a friendly community with Cajun roots. The downtown festival was in full swing next to the W.H. Tupper General Merchandise Museum and Louisiana Telephone Museum. Of course the first thing I had to do was rush out to buy some Mardi Gras beads, little realizing how many I’d see before the next few days would pass.
When friends invited me to ride a float in the Jennings parade I couldn’t say no. It was a great experience tossing beads to all who shouted, “Throw me something mister!” The traditional chant reflects the history of nobility allowing peasants, who were near starvation as winter drew to a close, to go into the streets and beg. Indeed the Cajun festivities include canvassing the neighbourhood for an evening community meal for all to share.
From Jennings I moved on to the small city of Lake Charles. Its first Mardi Gras parade was held in 1882, with the modern tradition being revived in 1980. Lots of family events were underway at the Civic Centre on Sunday, with activities for the kids, a Cajun band playing, and the Taste de Louisiane for everyone. Cooked and served by the students from the local culinary school, everything from the crawfish to bread pudding was delicious.
Sunday night featured the lighted boat parade and a chance to catch beads in the moonlight. With lots of laughter and plenty of beads feeding the fish, it took a real stretch to grab Mardi Gras beads out of the air that night.
Lake Charles has 32 Krewes or groups, representing all parts of the community. I had the chance to talk to members of many, including the Krewe de la Famille, the Krewe of Krewes, and the incredible Krewe of Illusions. While each Krewe has its own ball prior to the arrival of Fat Tuesday, Lake Charles has a gala ball open to everyone to enjoy the costumes.
Nothing was more spectacular than the Monday night Mardi Gras Royal Gala. It was as formal as a royal wedding, and fabulous glittering costumes to rival the best I’ve ever seen. The Krewe of Illusions, a professional krewe, crowned the event with an incredible finale. The wonderful thing about the costumes though, is that the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu Revelers in Lake Charles, displays them all year round-so while you’ll miss the music, glamour, and lights, you can still see the artistry no matter when you visit.
Tuesday was a series of block parties that brought everyone to the streets to enjoy the final Mardi Gras parade. Water dripping off my plastic rain gear, I still had the time of my life leaping for beads as they flew through the air. Around me kids laughed. Parents grabbed beads to hand them. Grandparents smiled, enjoying the continuity of tradition.
To make my day complete, I found the “baby” in my slice of King Cake, so I was queen for a day. Beads circled my neck and doubloons filled the cups I’d caught. It was a holiday I’ll never forget.