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Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

written by Penny Sadler

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras parade

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?

Anatomy of a Mardi gras parade

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.

Mardi gras parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

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.

The Floats

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.

Mardi Gras parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras parade

anatomy of a mardi gras parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

Anatomy of a mardi Gras Parade

 

anatomy of a Mardi gras parade

Those are men, btw. Yes, they are wearing naked lady suits

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras parade

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

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!”

Anatomy of a Mardi gras parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

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!

Orpheus

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

 

mardi gras

Mariska Hargitay

Anatomy of a mardi gras parade

Hillary Swank

mardi gras

Mariska chumming it up with Harry Connick

mardi gras

Hillary was suffering from a runny nose and was continuously dabbing at it with a tissue

Mardi Gras

Cyndi was slightly inebriated and had a bit of difficulty climbing up the stairs of her float.

mardi gras

Mariska and Jill preparing to board their float

mardi gras the parade.

Harry’s wife, former Victoria Secret model Jill Goodacre, looked as svelte as ever. Here chatting with Hillary Swank

mardi gras

Mariska, mid-bead toss

mardi gras

Cyndi enjoyed filming the crowd, and herself

mardi gras

Poison’s Bret Michaels

 

My brother also happened to be riding in a float with his wife, so we stopped by before the parade rolled to say hi.

mardi gras

My brother and sister-in-law

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.

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

anatomy of a mardi gras parade
Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

 

Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Parade

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+.

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42 comments

Holly February 7, 2017 at 9:31 pm

Reminds me I need to figure out what to give up for Lent. Thanks for that reminder. As many times as I have visited family and friends in New Orleans and lived there you would have thought I have been to Mardi Gras.

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Sara Broers February 7, 2017 at 6:49 pm

Here in the midwest Mardi Gras is celebrated in a few bars here and there, but nothing like New Orleans. I find it interesting that you can do tours of the floats before the parade. That would be kind of fun and maybe even a closer look then you could find along a parade route. If you love color, fun and beads… and a King’s Cake- looks like Mardi Gras is your thing.

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Penny Sadler February 8, 2017 at 12:52 pm

The floats are really interesting. I didn’t know that it was such a celebrity event either.

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Our Seaside Baby February 7, 2017 at 6:31 pm

I first heard about Mardi Gras years ago when I was working with some Americans who described how amazing it was and I’ve always wanted to visit since then. Love how colourful & vibrant it is! Polly

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Penny Sadler February 7, 2017 at 6:44 pm

Well there is a Mardi Gras somewhere in the world. I bet you can find one to go to

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Chrysoula February 7, 2017 at 2:42 pm

What a great experience! It must be really fun to dress in a custome and participate in the parade. I would love to visit New Orleans but even better during the Mardi Gras. Thanks for sharing

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Penny Sadler February 7, 2017 at 6:44 pm

Yes but really really crowded!

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Lydia@LifeUntraveled February 7, 2017 at 1:52 pm

New Orleans is one of my favorite places but, sadly, I wasn’t there during Mardi Gras. I can’t believe there are 62 parades – that’s a lot of floats! It looks like so much fun though!

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Penny Sadler February 7, 2017 at 6:45 pm

I love NOLA too. It has changed so much!

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Rosemary February 6, 2017 at 6:59 am

Mardi Gras is truly an experience. I went one time when in college and had a blast. I have to admit looking at your pictures, I had no idea how much went into it. Perhaps I had too much to drink 🙂 Great to see all the celebrity supporters. Great pictures and post. Time for a trip soon!!

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Penny Sadler February 6, 2017 at 8:39 am

I have not been yet. When Lindsey did this post for me I thought, I must go, but …

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Carol Perehudoff February 5, 2017 at 7:27 pm

I can’t believe I have never once experienced Mardi Gras – what’s wrong with us Canadians? We need one, too. Maybe not with 62 parades but at least one. It sounds like such a party and I’m determined to finally make it to New Orleans to experience it … or Venice …

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Penny Sadler February 6, 2017 at 8:40 am

I can’t believe I have not either!

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Claudia February 5, 2017 at 5:25 pm

I had no idea of the history and the work involved in the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations! My grandparents used to visit Rio at Carnival time and it seemed like an over-the-top festival of incredible proportions, at least in my child’s eyes at that time. Thanks for such a comprehensive overview of NOLA’s signature festivities.

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Lauren West February 5, 2017 at 6:35 am

Mardi Gras in New Orleans…now that’s a big party! I celebrated Mardi Gras in St. Louis before, but it’s got nothing on Nola!I had no idea that so many celebrities joined in too!

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Brianna February 4, 2017 at 10:51 am

I visited NOLA during Mardi Gras season a few years. ago and absolutely loved it!

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Elli May 5, 2014 at 3:22 am

So, if I understand correctly — Rio carnival, and the one in Venice, for example, are Mardi Gras events, too? I can´t believe I never realized the connection! They´re all such an amazing colorful extravaganza — You don´t know where to look first!

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Penny Sadler May 5, 2014 at 2:04 pm

Hi Elli yes it’s all kind a big party!

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Lindsay May 7, 2014 at 8:27 am

Yes, Elli! It’s all part of the same religiously-tied celebration of Lent… the “feast before the fast.” Every place has their own interpretation and way of celebrating, though!

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Penny Sadler February 7, 2017 at 6:47 pm

Yes you are correct Elli

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It's Mardi Gras, Y'all! - The Traveluster March 4, 2014 at 3:37 am

[…] Orleans is swinging full throttle in the weeks leading up to big Fat Tuesday. Parades roll around the clock, 62 in […]

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Terry at Overnight New York February 24, 2014 at 5:07 pm

Great pictures. You (almost) don’t need to attend after seeing them!

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Lindsay February 25, 2014 at 5:22 pm

What a great compliment, Terry! Thank you! Photos don’t do the “spirit” of Mardi Gras justice, though!

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Travelogged February 22, 2014 at 3:08 pm

I would love to go to Mardi Gras one day… Not 100% sure I could handle the craziness but I’ll try!

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Penny Sadler February 22, 2014 at 3:15 pm

I’m sure a little would go a long way!

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Lindsay February 22, 2014 at 4:08 pm

You know what’s funny- other than Bourbon Street and The Quarter, Mardi Gras is very much a Louisiana family holiday. It’s very kid friendly and a lot of fun. It may be crazy in the sense that there’s lots of people, but it’s not like a mosh pit. I never feel too claustrophobic. I’d bet you could handle it!

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Mary @Green Global Travel February 21, 2014 at 5:27 pm

It’s great to get insights into Mardi Gras from a Louisiana native. I think the biggest surprise to many people living outside of the South is that there are 40 parades- not just the main parade in the French Quarter. Thanks for sharing!

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Penny Sadler February 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm

I had no idea! I’d love to go with a local some time. Thanks Mary!

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Lindsay February 22, 2014 at 4:11 pm

Thanks Mary! And that’s right- Mardi Gras is a multi-weeks long celebration! I met a lady here in Nashville today from New Orleans. She’s a pastry chef and makes the most divine king cakes (I’ve already bought three from her!). We were talking about Mardi Gras and how much we miss this time in Louisiana. It really is such a great celebratory time of year with friends and family! I think everyone should go- but I think it would definitely be more special and “authentic” if you’re with a group of locals 😉

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Penny Sadler February 22, 2014 at 7:04 pm

Yes because otherwise you don’t know what to do and end up in the insanity on Bourbon St.

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Alison February 19, 2014 at 3:34 am

I was lucky enough to study at Tulane University in New Orleans, so I’ve attended my fair share of parades, including the second Orpheus parade. I also got to attend a ball once, though it was in Mobile, Alabama. Now I’m living in the Netherlands, but I still have a bag of beads left and a cup or two. Carnival is celebrated here, primarily in the southern part of the country, with lots of people dressing up in costume.

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Lindsay February 22, 2014 at 4:15 pm

That’s great that you went to Tulane and got to experience living in New Orleans! What was Orpheus like when it first started? I heard they were the first krewe to use lighting in their floats! I love that Carnival is celebrated in other parts of the world. It would be an interesting case study to experience all (or many of) the various cultural celebrations of carnival each year and compare them! Maybe I’ll task this to myself! ha! I might look you up in Nederland, Alison!

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cat of Sunshine and Siestas February 17, 2014 at 5:45 am

We celebrate Carnaval in Spain, which is crazy fun. I’ll be missing the huge celebration in Tenerife by just a week or two! It looks like a blast (and I would love to see Bret Michaels in person!!!)

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Lindsay February 22, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Haha! I can say that, at least from the ground, old Bret looked kind of like he did (in his music videos) 30 years ago! He was wearing shades, though. I wonder if he had on crazy eye makeup under there?

I’m familiar with your blog, Cat! I used to live in Seville! I loved all of the celebrations there. Especially Feria. Sounds like I need to add Tenerife during Carnival to my list of exploration!

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Jess February 17, 2014 at 3:52 am

Oh, I miss Mardi Gras so much! I lived in New Orleans for 5 years and I think I moved out with more beads then furniture – no matter how hard I worked to get rid of them!

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Lindsay February 22, 2014 at 4:22 pm

That’s hilarious, Jess! I have a love-hate relationship with beads! It’s always SO impressive when you have a huge stack around your neck. I remember one year repeatedly telling people, no, I did NOT lift up my shirt to get these! I used to be really good at getting the large, hand-made beads 😉 BUT 1) they start to weigh you down and hurt your neck/back- and make you sweat… and 2) they accumulate in your home- junk piles of beads. I can never figure out what to do with them (I still don’t know what happened to all of my “good” beads that I left behind in Louisiana years ago..My dad probably threw them away 🙁 Too bad. They’d bee vintage!)

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Penny Sadler February 22, 2014 at 7:06 pm

Always good to have a few beads on hand!

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Susan Loudermilk February 17, 2014 at 12:00 am

Lindsay, I remember a cute picture your mom had of you, about four years old, in your little Mardi Gras costume – maybe the Spanish Town parade – comparing loot with some tall and very strange looking costumed characters. As she said then, “Lindsay always has the most interesting friends!”

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Lindsay February 17, 2014 at 6:55 pm

Aunt Sana! I have that photo! I think it was Spanish Town! I should have included that in this post! 🙂 I think I was wearing a pink feather boa. Or maybe my “friend” was.

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wandering educators February 16, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Love this article- definitely an education – and what colors and hard work! Thanks for giving us the inside scoop!

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Lindsay February 17, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Thanks! Mardi Gras is a way of life, for sure! I think you don’t realize that the rest of the world doesn’t participate until you get older and move away from Louisiana!

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Penny Sadler February 17, 2014 at 8:07 pm

Lindsay next time you’re in NOLA for Mardi Gras I’m gonna tag along! 🙂

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