All Saints Day special in New Orleans
I’ve always thought that New Orleans operated on a kind of liturgical calendar all its own — part sacred, part profane.
As any good Catholic knows, the Church calendar starts off with Advent, the weeks leading up to Christmas. There’s Jan. 6 — the Feast of the Epiphany — Ash Wednesday, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and so on, with a host of other smaller celebrations and feast days mixed in.
In the New Orleans calendar, our ears are still ringing from the New Year’s Eve firecrackers when Jan. 6 — also known as “Kings Day” — rolls around, opening the Carnival season as well as the period when traditionalists start eating king cakes.
The Carnival period often coincides with the Super Bowl. If the game is in New Orleans that year — or if one of the Mannings is playing in it — then its significance looms even larger. If the Saints are in the Super Bowl, well, we get to a state of public ecstasy that words can’t describe.
Mardi Gras finally comes, then Lent starts. But in the middle of Lent comes St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s days, time for more celebration and more parades when we’re supposed to be in a period of self-imposed privation. By then, Easter is on the horizon, and people are already mapping out which acts they’ll see and what food they’ll eat at Jazzfest. A variety of oyster, gumbo, tomato and catfish festivals fills out the calendar.
Today, however, is one of the more-eccentric ones in the New Orleans daybook. The city didn’t create All Saints Day, but All Saints Day and New Orleans play a symbiotic role together, as if one couldn’t exist without the other.
Our cemeteries are tourist attractions. And while we may be famous for a streetcar named “Desire,” we also have one labeled “Cemeteries.” (You can ride it all the way from the casino if you want.)
Our NFL franchise was announced on this day in 1966. No other song is associated with New Orleans more than “When the Saints Go Marching In,” a religious tune that was appropriated for secular purposes as a kind of team fight song.
Some New Orleanians remember when All Saints Day was almost carnival-like, with vendors selling candy and treats from sidewalk carts. Some families packed picnic lunches to take to the graveyard.
Although it’s not like that anymore, All Saints Day is still something of a special time here. In recent days, you would have seen more activity in the cemeteries, as people tended to their family tombs, bringing fresh flowers and clearing away weeds.
In Lafitte and other south Louisiana communities, they’ll put a new coat of white paint on a tomb in preparation for All Saints Day.
Most cemeteries around here will be closed to vehicles today because of the clamor of people trying to get in so they can pay their respects and keep the city’s tradition going for another generation.
New Orleans and south Louisiana may be known for the celebration and enjoyment of life — food, drink, music, dance, spectacle.
We also give ourselves time to remember the dead, recognizing that one day we’ll all be taking a trip to the cemetery — and not by streetcar.
The rest of the country may deride us for emphasizing the bon temps too much, but All Saints Day shows that our outlook — one that takes in both desire and death — may be the more realistic and balanced perspective.
Dennis Persica is a New Orleans journalist. In his weekly column, he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is email@example.com.