Like many PoV readers, I spent my early years along the latitude of Golden Meadow and Houma (29° 23′-35′ North), and I thought then that Mardi Gras was invented there. After all, the term “mardi gras” was French, and that’s what people all around me spoke. Parades would roll there between two points within the small limits of a town. And my parents could recognize and name all the float riders, even when masked. I remember being shaken to see New Orleans parades broadcast on television. “Copy-cats!” I would exclaim with all childhood disdain.
And like many PoV readers, I have come to understand that WE are actually the copy-cats. Through some form of intercultural transmission across US Highway 90 West, the 29° North tradition came from New Orleans, whose enormous celebration is famously and infamously known worldwide. Even our floats are sometimes built, borrowed, or bought from New Orleans carnival artists, and convoys of those slowly truck-drawn decorations have often held-up traffic atop the four-lane highway across the Barataria swampland en route to the bayous.
But even city folks were copy-catting when they first celebrated in 1837, as similar carnivals occurred in medieval France and ancient Rome. Nonetheless, it’s artists and artistry from New Orleans that deepened the tradition in the New World, inventing street parades and floats and beads and other more notorious customs. Leave it to that innovative spirit to enable celebration of Mardi Gras during a pandemic without floats and parades (and bars). I imagine how I might have had to tell my grandpa, who’d rope-off his bayou front property along the highway for visiting family parking, something like “No, Papère. This year the floats don’t move. We do.”
And, thus, we celebrated Yardi Gras in 2021. To discover if intercultural transmission from New Orleans occurred with this innovation, I conducted a survey of decorated “house-floats” along one bayou—not by foot of course, as temperatures on that celebratory Tuesday were in the teens and my age and temperature tolerance were not. Rather, it was a drive-by survey, along a highway where the speed limit was so low that revealing it would incriminate the innocent.
Driving from the south, the first house-float I noted was an elevated cottage. Trawl boards were nailed up as window shutters and trawl nets were draped from the posts of the front porch. Mounds of oyster shells decorated the front yard, and some of them became the driveway to the house. There was a man sitting a rocking chair on the porch, rubbing tools against a whetstone. “I see you decorated your house like your fishing camp!” I called out. “I don’t got no camp,” he replied. Then he raised a blade that was no blunt oyster knife. So I drove on.
An early 60s house on a slab with yellow-tan bricks and a shallow-pitch roof was dressed with symbols of the drilling industry. In the front yard, the fence posts were made from drill pipe and topped with drill bits. The A-frame for the swing set, clothesline posts, and barbecue pit were all made from welded iron and drill pipe and all covered in a heavy slick paint. Another house was decorated as a gas station: concrete-walls with a high flat roof, a front lateral driveway beneath a large awning with slab-anchored posts, and two large front-facing garage doors. As I drove away, I recognized that these houses have been decorated this way for decades.
I rolled down my window to greet a woman hanging an American Flag from her house’s awning. Given our recent Presidential election, I thought nothing unusual of it. But the red, white and blue ribbons on the porch columns, together with pumpkins and cornucopia along the sidewalk, apparent nests of eggs on the lawn next to a scarecrow and black cat, and a snowy sleigh with wind-jingled bells all conspired to throw me for a loop. “You’re in the wrong season,” I joked. She smiled and threw some beads and doubloons to me. Maybe at me. When I noticed her windows boarded up with plywood, I know she was truly a woman for all seasons—all at once.
My house-float survey proved that we are no copy-cats: We’ve been decorating our houses and yards and making the yardi gras for a long time now. Take that, New Orleans! Nonetheless, Mardi Gras 2021 will be remembered for other novelties. Waste beads and parade litter didn’t get swept and washed into the environment. Icy temps prevented large gatherings and supported public health during the pandemic. Bourbon Street was empty for the first time since the Battle of New Orleans. Chris Owens danced in sweatpants and a sweatshirt—with sequins, of course. Floats will inevitably roll again, but in the meantime we got tradition covered. POV