Most people are familiar with the festive celebration that starts on King’s Day (January 6) and lasts until Ash Wednesday, or the start of Lent, which occurs 46 days before Easter. Many Catholics see Lent as a time of symbolic sacrifice and “giving something up” for the duration, as they remember and celebrate human mortality. So why not celebrate with one long, continuous party during the weeks leading up to this sacrifice?
Yes, this holiday has Christian origins, but it has become a celebration of culture: music, dance, costumes and parties- around the globe. Celebrated with gusto in Venice, Rio de Janeiro, Trinidad and Tobago – Carnival is perhaps best known (by Americans at least) for the parties and parades in Louisiana- New Orleans being the most notorious Mardi Gras hub.
Did you know the word Carnival is a derivative of the Latin word Fale, which means farewell to the flesh?
I am a Louisiana native, which means that I grew up with the most fantastic of all parties as part of my culture. When I was young, Mardi Gras was a time of king cakes and parades, beads and balls, costumes and parties. Most importantly, we always had a full week vacation from school, of which everyone took advantage. Our family often escaped out west for the week to ski. Mardi Gras never eluded us, though. No matter where we went; Breckenridge, Snow Mass, Purgatory, Park City; there always seemed to be carnival revelers there, enjoying the novelty of snow and mountains. Aspen and pine trees below the ski lifts dripped with purple, gold and green beads. Apres ski, Mardi Gras Mambo melodiously played and the partygoers danced in their after ski boots.
My point is, we tend to celebrate Mardi Gras wherever we happen to physically be. There’s obviously no better place to celebrate Fat Tuesday than the Mardi Gras mecca, New Orleans.
Anatomy of a Mardi Gras parade
There are many manifestations of this epic month-long celebration. Louisianians indulge in king cakes, attend raucous parties and balls, but the single most prominent feature of the Mardi Gras season is the parade.
What goes into these elaborate processions? The floats must be creatively crafted each year. Millions of beads, cups and other “throws” are collected and distributed. Groups of high school marching bands are organized. All female and male dancing krewes are assembled. Often, a slew of celebrities are invited. All of these components require perfect coordination and task management.
Most of the New Orleans parade floats are constructed and stored in a massive warehouse complex called Mardi Gras World which offers hour-long tours to visitors. Blaine Kern Studios has been building breathtaking floats for parades around the world since 1947. Every year, the artisans working here churn out whimsical floats for over 40 New Orleans Mardi Gras parades.
If you’ve never witnessed a proper New Orleans Mardi Gras parade, some of the things to look forward to are: the elaborately ornate floats, the soulful high school marching bands, the local all male and female groups that walk and dance in costume, and of the – the loot (beads, cups, stuffed animals)!
Growing up in Louisiana, children learn a key phrase at a very early age: “Throw me something Mister!”
Beads, balls and everything else
The other aspects of parade participation vary greatly from krewe to krewe. Very often, there is a ball. Sometimes it is the night of the parade. Other times it may be a week or two in advance or perhaps later. People who don’t ride can be invited to the balls as well. The attire is (as far as I know) always formal. It is a ball, after all. I’ve onl ever been to one Mardi Gras ball, and ironically it was in Washington DC. DC’s “Washington Mardi Gras” is one of the better known U.S. celebrations outside of Louisiana. Many folks from the boot consider it an honor to be invited and involved.
To ride in parades you often have to pay an initiation fee, in addition to the ticket you purchase to be in the parade and go to the ball. The price usually includes your costume and your throws. We were invited to ride in Orpheus a few years back, which I would have loved, minus the hefty price tag. The initiation fee was $500 per person, then an additional $1200 per person to ride and go to the ball. It’s an extremely big deal to many who live in Louisiana to be in one of these parades, so I can see the allure. I just kept thinking of what an amazing international trip I could have with the same dollars!
My sister-in-law put it to me this way: “From a girl’s point of view, Mardi Gras is that one time of year that you get to relive the excitement and glory of prom all over again, only better! Considering that nights of getting all dressed up in a gorgeous gown with some of your best friends are few and far between, it is incredible to do so every year in such a whirlwind of magic, excitement and some of the best entertainment around! And this time there’s booze and no curfew!”
Other parades have a minimal or no cost. These are usually smaller or less elaborate parades. You then would be responsible for purchasing your own throws and costume. My mother and father in law will be riding in Spanish Town Parade in Baton Rouge this year (my home town). They will need to buy 125 dozen beads and numerous stuffed animals, cups, and toys to throw. Each float has a portable toilet and usually a keg of beer and music. A few days prior to the parade, they’ll have to load the float with their loot. The parade’s theme is ” Flamingo Dynasty” (a play on Duck Dynasty) so the women will dress in pink camouflage and the men wear beards. Sounds fun to me!
With 62 parades rolling in New Orleans, it’s not always easy to decide which ones to attend. There’s Rex, the oldest parading krewe since 1872, who are responsible for the purple, gold and green Mardi Gras colors. Endymion, known for its celebrity grand marshals, has some of the largest and most ornate floats. Folks flock to the Zulu parade, named for the fierce African tribe, to catch coconuts. My new favorite parade is Orpheus.
The Krewe of Orpheus parade, which rolls on Monday (also known as Lundi Gras) was started by Harry Connick Jr. (a New Orleans native), his father and Sonny Borey in 1993. There are always a slew of celebrities that ride each year. This year’s celebrity monarch is none other than the enigmatic filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino.
In 2012, (the last time we were in New Orleans for Mardi Gras), Mariska Hargitay, Cyndi Lauper, Hillary Swank, Sarah Hyland, Bret Michaels, and of course Harry Connick and his wife, Jill Goodacre, rode in the parade.
Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade
My brother also happened to be riding in a float with his wife, so we stopped by before the parade rolled to say hi.
The theme for Orpheus in 2012, which paraded uptown with 1,200 riders on 30 floats, was “Nonsense and Tomfoolery”
This year, the 27-float procession, themed “The Enchanted World” will roll with over 1,300 krewe members through hundreds of thousands of parade-goers.
If you’re planning to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras for the first time try skipping the French Quarter and Bourbon Street (it’s a hellish mosh-pit), and check out the parades instead!
About the author
Lindsay is a freelance writer and runs the blog The Traveluster. She’s spent a lifetime traveling and studying culture, with a degrees in anthropology and geography, and a masters in international peace and conflict resolution. Currently living in Nashville, Tennessee, she has previously called Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Washington, DC, and Seville, Spain home. You can find her Facebook, Twitter @travelluster, Pinterest and Google+.