Mardi Gras, or Carnival in other lands, is not a spectator sport; it’s participatory street theater for all ages. Babies to grandparents don ornamentation from elaborate costumes to strings of battery powered colored lights. As the countdown to Fat Tuesday approaches – Mardi Gras day – people can be as decorated as a house at Christmas.
To debunk a myth, Mardi Gras is rarely licentious drunken debauchery.
The evening parades are famous yet many daytime parades during the season cater to families with huge floats interspersed by impressive student marching bands.
But it’s the evening parades that capture the imagination.
Mardi Gras is more than a carnival. It’s the bond among New Orleanians that even nature couldn’t change.
The flambeaux carrier originally served as a beacon for parade-goers to better enjoy the spectacle of night festivities. They were usually slaves or free men of color.
The man in the pink tutu, carrying his yellow plastic Mardi Gras cup – the allowable open-container for drinks – is nonchalant as he talks with the Queen of Hearts and the gentleman dressed as a medieval plague doctor. They and hundreds more wait on the corner of Dauphine and Franklin in Bywater for the Krewe ‘tit Rəx to kick off the evening’s parades. They’re not krewe participants; they’re bystanders which means they’re participants.
Mardi Gras season in New Orleans begins on the Twelfth Night of Christmas, January 6, with the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc’s parade through the French Quarter celebrating the birthday of the city’s patron saint, Joan of Arc. Winter is not the doldrums in this city justifiably known as the Big Easy. To debunk another myth, Mardi Gras is rarely licentious drunken debauchery.
There are 68 krewes (social clubs) in New Orleans. The granddaddy of Mardi Gras, the Krewe of Rex, invented the modern carnival in 1872. They took centuries old European pre-Lenten traditions and fused them with the polyglot cultural mix of America’s most unique city. From the first parade in honor of a Russian prince to today’s multi-week carnival of and for the people, all tastes are catered to – Krewe de Barkus featuring your pet dog to the unabashedly irreverent adult-themed Krewe de Vieux.
A post-Katrina influx of young professionals to fill New Orleans new burgeoning high-tech and medical sector has invigorated Mardi Gras with imaginative new krewes that stray from the mega floats of the more traditional and exclusive super krewes. The Krewe ‘tit Rəx, founded only seven years ago, is unique as New Orleans only micro krewe – their members create shoeboxes into full themed tiny floats. The krewe’s name comes from the Cajun abbreviation of petite (small).
The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus followed ‘tit Rəx. They are a new krewe with a Sci-Fi themed Mardi Gras parade – a spoof on the seriousness of Comic-com and Star Trex conventions. For over 90 minutes many dozens of fanciful floats in odd shapes, marching bands and brigades of aliens were pushed, pedaled or pulled through the streets. The krewe members make most of their throws and prized catches this year were purple painted penne pasta necklaces and bottle caps with arrangements of red beans and rice.
The 90 year-old Krewe of Carrollton, one of the many daytime parades during the season, is a family favorite of huge floats interspersed with impressive student marching bands. Running down elegant St. Charles Avenue there’s lots of opportunity to catch the iconic and colorful bead necklaces thrown by traditionally masked float riders.
From the generations that have called New Orleans home for nearly 300 years to the overheard comment of a young professional proclaiming, “Why would I live anywhere else?” Mardi Gras is more than a carnival. It’s the bond among New Orleanians that even nature couldn’t change. It’s a man in a pink tutu embracing the present.
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