The Greatest Free Show On Earth

by Jaclyn McCabe February 11, 2021


My initial reaction to the news that Mardi Gras was canceled was relief. 

While that might come as a shock to those who know my love for all things Carnival, last year was such an off year. If you were here, you know: not only was the vibe off, everything that could go wrong did, from parade cancelations to human tragedy. I ended the season knowing I wanted to show up differently this year. 

I'm not super disappointed not to be riding in a big krewe or walking in five different parades as I usually do, stressing myself out to make new costumes and throws for each one. However, I was looking forward to what I hoped would be a quieter, craft-filled season. And I wanted to experience all the magical ways New Orleans shows up for grassroots local-centric Carnival celebration with some 2006 vibes of all things love and glitter (at a distance, of course). 

I was excited when the idea of house floats first began to surface. Right away, I had an idea to represent the parts of Carnival season that a dear friend said taught her about love.  "When I first moved down here, I couldn't figure out what the catch was. Surely someone had to be making money from all this," the former New Yorker explained. "And then I realized the primary motivator had nothing to do with money. It was love and tribe." 

She’s right: New Orleanians invest tons of time, creativity, and resources into our costumes, parades, and Mardi Gras festivities, and it doesn’t cost a thing to enjoy the spectacle. My idea was simple: convert my porch into a circus, because Carnival is the greatest free show on earth. 

With the concept set, all I had to do was the fun part—create. And yet, I couldn't seem to get my ass out to the studio. I blamed it on the perimenopause fatigue and a litany of other excuses preventing me from starting. But it wasn't until I actually began that I could see my procrastination was covering up my grief over losing my favorite time of the year.

"Ugh, didn't we just do this grief thing?" my inner mean girl grumbled as I crafted alone in my studio, tears starting to fall. 

I texted a musician friend my Mardi Gras playlist and said, "I'm missing New Orleans in New Orleans." And I did the only other thing I knew to do this time of year: add more glitter, because more is always more.


Installation day felt good to have a little help from a friend. (photo by Kathleen Flynn)

The truth is, Carnival season is more than just a Bourbon street parade of boobs, beads, and beer. If you live here, you know it's a vital part of the year. Not only does it carry great cultural significance in Catholic communities worldwide––the feast before the fast––but it's also a necessary emotional and spiritual experience within the year's cycle, a time for release and jubilation. 

And while my inner anthropologist can quickly tell you the intricacies of all the ways society flips on its head, toss off a history lesson dating back to medieval Europe, or tell you the whens and whys of past canceled Carnival seasons in New Orleans’s history, those feel like moot points this year. 

Instead, I'll tell you what Carnival season looks like in my house. From Christmas to Ash Wednesday, there's a gaggle of like-minded souls who gather weekly, sometimes more, amidst the darkness of the winter to create, commune, and converse. Alongside the mountains of king cake, shiny things, and hot glue, there are powerful "Red Tent" conversations, as one friend has so accurately described. It’s a time for connection, celebration, and joy.

So when my "Mardi Gras ride or die" and I walked home at the end of it all last year, helping each other remove broken costume bits and processing all the things that felt "off" about our favorite time of the year, we began brainstorming all the ways we would do things differently this year. We made plans to get up at the crack of dawn and find the skeletons, we adjusted our costume plans to include more danceable frocks, and we contemplated how to add in more of the spiritual bits we both loved. 

Not once did we consider that we might lose those glitter-filled "Red Tent" moments. Not once did we think that we wouldn't be parading to the river this year to toss our ashes alongside the Society of Saint Anne. Not once did we imagine we wouldn't be following a Dixieland beat until our feet ached, our costumes tore, and our paper lashes fell off. 

These are the things causing the Mardi Gras-sized hole in my heart. I know it’s essential to stay apart this year, and I know that future Carnival seasons will bring back blue skies, glitter, brass bands, and parades. But this year, I’m really missing and grieving the community, creativity, and connection that this season usually brings. 

While I'm still trudging along creating a simple Mardi Gras Day costume, the weather this weekend is forecast to be unusually cold for New Orleans. And I find myself praying for snow so I can pretend that, like everywhere else, it's just Tuesday. 




Watercolor by Lyla Clayre (It made my heart happy to find this on Instagram)

Jaclyn McCabe
Jaclyn McCabe