I don’t know how this year is going for you, but it hasn’t been too great over here. There’s been plenty of illnesses and some of the general blahs that come after the holidays. Luckily for me, I grew up in south Louisiana. Almost as soon as we are done toasting the New Year, it’s time for another celebratory season…Mardi Gras! It may be a slight bit colder in Iowa, but you can help fight the winter blues by throwing your own kid-friendly Mardi Gras celebration.
A Quick Overview of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras season always starts on January 6th, the Epiphany or Twelfth Night (when the Wise Men finally made it to meet Jesus). Mardi Gras itself always ends the day before lent begins—cue the living-it-up before a sober season.
Carnival, another way of saying the Mardi Gras season, is rooted in Christianity, with origins even dating back to the Middle Ages. Of course, the holiday has since taken on cultural traditions, some of which are not so “Christian.”
You may think of Mardi Gras as a college student or adult celebration. It actually is a blast for kids!
So let’s start planning!
You can have nothing else but a king cake, and it’ll be a party!
A plastic baby is traditionally baked inside of the cake. This fell out of vogue sometime when I was growing up because of choking hazards but seems to be happening once again—with a huge disclaimer of course.
The baby symbolizes a tiny Jesus, relating back to those Wise Men! Luck is supposed to surround the person who gets the baby. They are also on tap to buy the next cake to keep the celebration going. (I’m sure my mom felt very lucky when I got the king cake all of those years growing up).
There are many great places to order king cakes online (Gambinos, Sucre, Haydel, to name a few), but be prepared to pay a TON in shipping. I’m not even going to admit how much I paid this year.
I recommend making one. More specifically, this short-cut version by Holly Clegg. Depending on their ages, recruit the kids to help make the king cake at the party, and then do a parade while it cooks (more on that below). My four-year old had a blast helping, and it was delicious. I’ve never made one from scratch, but this recipe in the Times-Picayune looks good if you want to take on a bigger project.
Parade it Up
My kids are young and pretty much prefer tearing up the house over planned activities. Having a “parade” was a huge hit though!
If it happens to be a respectable temperature, having a parade outside with wagons and bikes would be more fun. We did one around the house because, well, Iowa.
For costumes, I let the kids choose anything from our pile of dress-up clothes. I elected not to have beads thrown in our little parade for three reasons: the kids are little, I don’t trust their aim, and we were in the presence of an ophthalmologist’s wife, so I take possible eye injuries a little more seriously. Instead, we raided our basement and passed around musical instruments and pom-poms. You could also give your kids napkins to twirl in the air.
I don’t remember ever buying beads because we generally kept a stash from past parades, but you could order this set from Amazon. I use beads for decoration and pass them out to everyone to wear as they walk in.
Have other parents stand along your “route,” and then cue up the music and have the little ones dance and walk on by.
The three songs I played were:
- Mardi Gras Mumbo (The Meters)
- Audubon Zoo (Live at Louis’s Las Vegas on Spotify)
- When the Saints Go Marching In (Louis Armstrong or Laurie Berkner depending on how authentic vs. kid-friendly you want to get. Only one of the two has the New Orleans airport named after them, however!)
For music throughout the rest of the night, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue (which opened Hancher’s season last year) would be great. Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” seems especially poignant if you’ve been to the city.
If you’re looking for another activity, how cute would it be to decorate these masks before the parade?
Food & Drink
If you turn your celebration into a lunch or dinner affair, there are a few traditional Louisiana dishes that would be good to serve.
(Disclaimer: I am pretty much the worst ambassador of Louisiana. I don’t eat meat OR seafood, but I do complain about the cold a lot and like a good drink, so maybe Louisiana won’t disown me?)
I served a vegan red beans and rice dish from Budget Bytes. You could make a meat-eater sauté sausage as an optional add-on, or Budget Bytes also offers a meat version (remember to soak the beans the night before you want to cook these recipes and don’t start it an hour before you want to eat).
Donald Link is a big deal in the South, and this fried chicken and andouille gumbo comes highly recommended. I try to make a big green gumbo once a year, like this one in Saveur Magazine. Don’t skip the gumbo filé —I’ve seen it before at Bread Garden and Hyvee.
These dishes would all go great with a simple green salad and French bread.
If you like to make cocktails, the Sazerac (like this one from famed restaurant Commander’s Palace) is the official cocktail of New Orleans.
A Final Story & Note
I threw a mini party last year. I don’t remember details because I had an infant, but I do remember we had king cake. We finished all but one piece, and I set it aside to eat later. The baby was obviously in that piece. We hadn’t bothered to explain the tradition to a bunch of two- and three-year-olds when we were carefully watching them eat their cake.
Imagine my surprise when I found the plastic baby Jesus on the counter and the cake gone an hour later. When I questioned my Kate about it, she shrugged and said she and her friend, also Kate, “snuck Mardi Gras” and chewed on that baby. She looked at me funny when I told her the baby symbolized baby Jesus. I mean how confused must they have been to discover a hard baby in their cake?! I still laugh at the story and the absurdity of Mardi Gras from a child or outsider’s eyes. I also thank God no one choked.
More than anything else, Mardi Gras is about having a celebratory spirit (clearly the Kates did as they ran around and snuck food), so plan an elaborate dinner party or just throw a cinnamon roll at your child and call it king cake.
Either way, be sure to “Laissez le bon temps rouler,” or Let the good times roll!