How I Celebrate Mardi Gras in Raleigh

by Addie Ladner

courtesy Addie Ladner

January 6, 2019: True to form, I move mountains, starting at dawn, to get everyone loaded up and out the door for Mass. It’s the Feast of the Epiphany and I’m ready to kick off another Mardi Gras season here in Raleigh. I’m up extra-early to get a king cake started and wake the kids with Zydeco music. Despite my best efforts, we’re still late—and spend the entire Mass wrangling children who are barely able to pay attention. But then our 4-year-old recognizes the word “epiphany” and squeals, “Mardi Gras!” I’m embarrassed but also pleased as punch that my kids will know what this holiday is, after all. The Mardi Gras they’ll know is a stark contrast to the one I grew up with, but it’s better than no Mardi Gras at all. We’ll spend the next two months baking and passing out king cakes to local friends. We’ll listen to The Meters every morning as we pull down our bag of beads and masks; we’ll transform shoe boxes into miniature Mardi Gras floats. Laissez les bons temps rouler, I say!

I was raised near New Orleans and went to college in Mobile, Alabama, so Mardi Gras was a holiday with as much significance as Christmas—schools even get a full week off to celebrate. The festivities aren’t limited to just one day: they start exactly on the Feast of the Epiphany (which is always January 6) and carry on through Fat Tuesday (which varies year-to-year; usually mid-February or early March). Growing up, king cake was consumed regularly and many weekends were spent entirely at parades, where you’re expected and even encouraged to yell and plead for, essentially, junk. In return, you’d end up with bags of shiny plastic beads, doubloons and MoonPies that lingered in cars, homes and sidewalks for weeks. It was all mesmerizing—the costumes, the marching bands, the parade royals. I don’t recall anyone ever explaining what Mardi Gras was to me, I just learned through osmosis. And like many things in life, I didn’t realize how much I loved the spirit of it all until I wasn’t around it. I also realized I desperately want my young kids to know it.

Year one here in Raleigh, we sulked over mediocre Cajun food and king cake, wallowing in a major bout of FOMO. Fast-forward to year nine: Raleigh is happily now our home and we’ve got three young kids who need to know a proper Mardi Gras. Gratefully, the city houses plenty of other people who aren’t from here, either, and the sights and sounds of Carnival Season around me are steadily growing. My friend Magara throws a New Orleans-style soirée each year, dishing out red beans and rice and hurricanes (a classic rum cocktail with fruit juice or grenadine), live music blaring in a basement bedecked in gold, green and purple. We pay a yearly visit to The Big Easy to get that atmospheric feel of the French Quarter, dipping into their Taste of Louisiana platter, which includes jambalaya, gumbo and fried oysters (or fried alligator if you’re up for it). Last year, we were thrilled to add Lucettegrace and La Farm Bakery to our list of places to get king cake, though my children still prefer homemade. And we discovered a small, relaxed family-oriented parade in Wake Forest to add to our to-do-with-kids activities.

This year we plan to make it to Oakwood’s Samedi Gras celebration, a hoopla block party that should be the icing on the king cake. Geared toward neighborhood residents, family and cohorts, it was started by fellow ex-New Orleanian Richard Kaznicki, who, like me, felt like something was missing around this time of year. The kids are now old enough to appreciate the Krewe of Leonidas, the neighborhood’s very own second line band, the majorettes and, of course, the coronation of both a king and empress of the event. It’ll be the real beginning of their Mardis Gras immersion.

What I’ve finally learned about Mardi Gras is that it can be carried on wherever you are. We’ve found our people, scouted our celebrations and started our own traditions. Whereas I used to feel homesick this time of year, now I get excited! So whether you’ve got Mardis Gras in your blood or just adopt the spirit, I hope that this year you’ll eat some king cake, have a few spirits, dress up, find a parade and, if you’re Catholic, make your way to Mass on Ash Wednesday.

Maybe even on time.

For more on where to celebrate Mardi Gras in the Triangle, click here.