My first Mardi Gras celebrations were in high school with my youth group. I’m pretty sure every Episcopal youth group does this, but we hosted a pancake supper every year. It led to a sugar-fueled rush of kids running around a church event room covered in purple, green, and gold. One of the families would always order an enormous king cake, and I’d feast on the sweet, sticky, cinnamon-filled goodness. Twice I ended up with the baby.
My first *real* Mardi Gras was in 2011. A baby-faced twenty year-old, I drove down to New Orleans with my then boyfriend and one of his frat brothers after midterms to hole up with a dozen other friends in our friend’s parent’s house near the historic district. It was chilly and raining, I was underage, my boyfriend was cheating on me, and I kept wishing I’d gone with my sorority sisters instead. After taking some anger out on pralines (pronounced praww-leenz, thank you), a stranger handed me a bite of king cake. If there was anything I’d learned from my weekend in New Orleans, it was that as long as you’re in family areas or at garden parties, you can trust pretty much anything a stranger hands you. So I ate it, and two bites in I got the baby. I hid it and didn’t tell anyone until several hours later, when my boyfriend had abandoned me in a bar and my local friend bought me a Pimm’s cup and made me dance.
When you get the baby in the king cake, you’re king for the day. You make the rules, people have to bring you whatever you want, and you party. It was supposed to be a form of revelry during Mardi Gras, to let the “little people” have a taste of being royal. There are a whole lot of societal commentaries we could delve into with that, but that would require me getting out my textbooks on medieval religious history (wow, I really am a dork). All to say – you get an extra boost to your celebrations before staggering in the next morning for Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Finding the baby in high school at your church meant you’d get an extra helping of pancakes, a gift card to Sonic, and if you were lucky you might get a sip of wine from one of the church grandmas who loves you.
New Orleans, however…as soon as I told my friend I’d found the baby, the night took a complete turn. Suddenly, instead of following around my boyfriend who always ended up being ringleader, they followed me. We danced in the streets. We went into a few pop-up bars for drinks and beads. I got kicked out of a witch shop, but was greeted with a shrimp po’boy. Every so often I’d be handed another drink – “for the king,” they’d shout, and we’d all chug laughing. It felt like I’d been transported into an alternate universe where I was known as my own person and not just “the girlfriend.” We stumbled in around 2 AM, my boyfriend looking puzzled and jealous, and the next day we went home. The following week, he broke up with me.
Ever since, I’ve treated Mardi Gras not just as a celebration of the good things in life, but as a celebration of me. That’s gotten harder to do as the years have gone on – I dated again, then was engaged, now married and with a child. And heaven knows it absolutely doesn’t involve anywhere near as much alcohol. It does involve a day where I celebrate, though, even if in smaller amounts. A nice dinner & lavish dessert, donuts for breakfast, some shopping at the mall – or all of the above if I’m feeling frisky. And when I do, I remember the heavy, damp air of New Orleans at midnight, a Pimm’s cup in my hand, and being king for a night.