Mardi Gras is this upcoming Tuesday. In New Orleans, where I just spent a week, the Carnival season leads up to Mardi Gras and actually begins on January 6, or ‘King’s Day’, the Day of the Epiphany. While Mardi Gras in this country is traditionally celebrated in many places in the South, most people associate it with the historic city of New Orleans. There the parades start two weekends before Mardi Gras and continue until the day of.
The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans took place in 1856 when a group of business organized themselves into a ‘krewe’ or club and called it the Mystick Krewe of Comus. When you visit the city, stop by the restaurant, Antoine’s in the French Quarter. Antoine’s opened in 1840 and is said to be the city’s oldest fine eating establishment. Known for its French-Creole cuisine, the restaurant has also been the scene of many ‘krewe’ luncheons and brunches that take place prior to the annual parades.
Three of the restaurant’s private dining rooms bear the names of local krewes. You are welcome to view them, if they are not in use, and view the photos,king and queen gowns, septers, elaborate invitations, medallions and other parade memorabilia on permanent display there. Just ask one of the staff for directions as the restaurant is vast and you can easily lose your way in its backroom chambers.
The parades in New Orleans are held throughout the city. Each one is different in character and theme, although this year, Star Wars seemed to be a popular choice. Contrary to recent popular media publicity, Mardi Gras is very much a family celebration, as are most of the parades. One year when visiting New Orleans, I was lucky enough to catch a parade of the French Quarter’s elementary school (Kipp McDonogh) students. Each class was costumed as a different nursery rhyme. Many of the youngsters were barely taller than the tangled beads that they tried to throw out to the onlookers. It was by far one of the cutest Mardi Gras parades and charmed everyone standing along Royal Street.
Krewe du Vieux kicks off the New Orleans parade line-up, however, with its satirical and often bawdy procession in the French Quarter two Saturdays before Mardi Gras. This is one that you might not want to take your kids to see although there were plenty of them in the crowd this year. The krewe pokes fun at everyone and anything in the way of its usually highly charged political theme. This year’s theme, for example, was ‘Begs for Change’ and targeted the Supreme Court, City Hall, the local school system, Kickstarter, the medical system as well as others. Because it is the first parade and occurs on Saturday in the French Quarter the sidewalks along the parade route are packed and loud.
Another popular early parade near the Quarter is that by the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, a fairly recent addition to the krewes. As one New Orleanean friend described it, “It’s a parade for geeks.” Members are Star Wars freaks, Trekkies, Mega-Geeks, Gamers to mention a few. This year, they pedaled, pushed and walked their small floats through the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods to the delight of everyone there. There were nearly as many Intergalatic costumes on the street as there was in the parade and everyone, everyone was having fun whether blowing bubbles or having laser sword fights or just watching the merriment.
Two of the larger parades that same weekend were the Krewe of Oshun and Krewe of Cleopatra parades. They were entirely different and had big rolling floats from which the masked riders were tossing all sorts of ‘throws’ into the crowd below. We watched from the Garden District neighborhood, not far from where the parades started. Families were there with their kids, sitting together in lawn chairs or standing huddled at the curb so as to better catch the stuffed animals, miniature footballs, key chains, cups, horned headbands, tiny balls as well as the traditional beads. I managed to snag a sipper cup and a lighted key chain with Cleopatra’s krewe insignia on it in addition to some ‘krewe beads’. The beads with the Krewe’s insignia are prized among parade goers.
Of all the parades I saw this year, my favorite was that of Krewe de Barkus. Judging from those who lined the streets to watch the afternoon parade, I wasn’t alone. This is one Mardi Gras parade that has really gone to the dogs. That’s because it’s all about the dogs. Owners and their beloved costumed canines strutted down the street together, along with an occasional second line band, to the cheers of those watching. Dogs of every sort, from Great Danes to Chihuahua, were dressed as ‘Star Wars’ characters in keeping with this year’s parade theme of ‘Bark Wars.’
The dogs paraded on the end of a leash or rode in homemade floats and seemed not to mind that they’re wearing headpieces, hats, robes, frilly collars or even peeking out of boxes. Almost as many dogs were on the sidelines as in the parade where they collected doggie treats of every sort from the marchers. To Go, the handsome brown boxer sitting next to me scored doggie chews, a pull toy, a frisbee and I don’t know what else while I picked up more beads and some insulated cup holders imprinted with the name and likeness of the Krewe’s King, Andouille Lamarie, a wire-haired Dachshund. It was all very silly and great fun.
The parades continue throughout the city, with as many as 13 on some days, culminating with those on Mardi Gras itself. And then it all ends–until the next year. As is said in New Orleans, “Happy Mardi Gras!”
Learn more about the Krewes of New Orleans on the History Blog‘s guest post by Rosary O’Neill from March 27, 2014.
See more of my photos from the Krewe of Barkus Mardi Gras parade. Go to my Portfolio page!