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November 24, 2009

Childhood Holidays

Roy Meachum

With its rich tradition of Mardi Gras, I must report it was the only holiday publicly celebrated. In my New Orleans childhood, while there were balls in the weeks before Fat Tuesday, attendance was limited to Krewe (club) members. Things really came apart the weekend before Ash Wednesday when out-of-towners poured through the railroad stations; air travel was still in the future. But Thanksgiving couldn’t be celebrated in a more subdued manner.


Between boarding house and boarding school, mine was not a usual childhood, but holidays were very much looked forward to. I can recall scenes for Christmas and Easter. I was part of a party sitting in a café-saloon on Good Saturday; we came for late breakfast in the place downtown off St. Charles Avenue. When we arrived most of the tables and bar stools were empty; as the morning wore on they gradually filled. The joint was jumping at noon when the church decreed the end of Lent. Not only were all chairs and stools filled, there was a jammed crowd standing; bartenders very busy.


Not only was Mardi Gras marked by a huge blast, it was traditional for the 40 days and nights for all the faithful to give up something; New Orleans’ Protestants and Catholics, for the most part, chose to absent themselves from the grape. Even if they had not been entirely faithful for all Lent, still, Good Saturday was celebrated by a public party all over New Orleans.


Thanksgiving was no big deal. Well, maybe in other parts of the city, but not in mine. Nor was Halloween. In those Depression days, purses and wallets could not afford candy; but this was New Orleans where grownups usually came up with a nickel for the movies. Trick or Treat didn’t hack it. In my early years, ghosts and goblins did not haunt Second Street and they rarely appeared in Holy Cross’s section of the Lower Ninth Ward. Costumes? Forget’em. They were saved for Fat Tuesday. I can summon up a single mental picture of a soap smear on a window.


We now commemorate Thanksgiving as the day for family. Maybe that’s it. New Orleans before World War II had more than its share of individuals, as opposed to families. Furthermore, there was little money to return to hometowns. Maison Blanche and D.H. Holmes department stores rarely pushed Thanksgiving sales; there was no such thing as Black Friday.


Of course, Aunt Kate spread out a meal in proper fashion; together with cranberries, I remember. But she had been raised before Wall Street fell. Furthermore, she realized her “guests” might feel depressed; the ambiance around the boarding house table was unnaturally bright. Most of all, everybody looked forward to Christmas.


When I returned from boarding school for Thanksgiving, mother traditionally had a big bowl of tangerines; but that came after we moved across the street to an apartment, closer to the route of jazz bands that worked from the funeral homes up Jackson Avenue.


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