In New Orleans, Twelfth Night starts the countdown to Mardi Gras.
As a native New Orleanian, I can speak firsthand of the magic that envelopes my beautiful Crescent City when the holiday season ushers in.
Streetcar lines sport festive green wreaths and red bows as they merrily transport passengers to holiday outings; majestic historic homes seem to illuminate from within as star-colored lights cloak the ancient oak trees and azaleas; carolers sing familiar tunes throughout the Quarter and are interspersed with the clinking of silverware as holiday diners toast to a New Year. Hotel lobbies are transformed into winter wonderlands and our beloved City Park seems to transport guests to the North Pole with its festive lights and decor.
Yes, there is a distinctive hum throughout the city during the holiday season that can melt even the biggest Scrooge’s heart.
I grew up walking to Celebration in the Oaks from my grandparent’s house in Mid-City with my cousins and extended family — sometimes bundled up in our hats and coats, other years sporting flip flops and t-shirts. I still scald the roof of my mouth on that first sip of Cafe du Monde hot chocolate as I wait for the Caroling in Jackson Square to begin.
Mr. Bingle, grillades and grits, Papa Noel, Teddy Bear Tea, bonfires on the levee, Revellion dinners, Santa in his pirogue on Bayou St. John, fireworks on the Mississippi, the New Year’s baby, cabbage and black eyed peas are all holiday traditions that inspire a special memory or feeling in my fleur-de-lis shaped heart.
However, my favorite New Orleans holiday tradition — bar none — is Twelfth Night. For the rest of the Christian world, Jan. 6 (King’s Day) marks the day the three wise men arrived to present the infant Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. For New Orleanians, it’s the start of the distinctive holiday season that truly separates us from the rest of the country: Mardi Gras.
And that’s when the real celebration begins.
Growing up in New Orleans, I was cheerfully ignorant that the transition from one major holiday season to the next for the majority of Americans was New Year’s to Easter. The horror and confusion that seized my purple, green and gold mind when I learned that not everyone’s holly jolly holiday season was merely the countdown to the joy and revelry of Mardi Gras catapulted me into a lifelong decision that I could never live anywhere else, much less raise a family there.
As a mother of two small children, I find myself reminding them of the unique magic and culture that weaves throughout our city often, but especially so as we near the holiday season. Where else in the world is Chanukah, Christmas and New Year’s not the main event, but merely the opening act to the big show? How special is a childhood where you swap out your holly and mistletoe for masks and king cakes, and continue to celebrate the joy of living and family?
And in a city that is far from perfect, what makes us special is our ability to find something to celebrate in spite of our problems. You don’t stop living, and you can’t stop celebrating because of the problems that life hands out. You always find a way to see the joy.
As a NOLA parent, holding onto joy is a life lesson worth passing onto our children. I believe it is also the elusive magic spirit we all feel when the city begins to sparkle with holiday lights and the carolers can be heard up and down the Mississippi River. We are so fortunate that we live in a place that finds a way to celebrate the good in our lives just a little bit longer.
So let the countdown begin. Happy almost Mardi Gras, y’all.