Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mardi Gras in all it's glory

So my timing of this blog wasn't the greatest as we are already weeks past that beloved New Orleans tradition, Mardi Gras. So I thought I'd back up a bit and explain the festival season. Just a warning, I forsee that this will be a long post, so if Mardi Gras isn't something you're interested in, skip to the next one.

For those who have never attended Carnival season in New Orleans, the celebration officially begins twelve days before Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) with festivities reaching a frenzied peak the weekend before the main event.

The main focus of Mardi Gras isn't the French Quarter (although each evening the party does continue on Bourbon St.) but the parades that roll along St. Charles Ave. or Canal St. Each parade is organized by a Krewe, a club or society, some of which are still very exclusive, and many of which have existed pretty much since Mardi Gras began.

Thousands of people gather to see the parades and to catch "throws", which for some (including my husband) is pretty much the point. Typical throws are beads (of course), cups, coins etc. but every spectator is hoping to catch a rarer throw - could be anything, ANYTHING, and each Krewe has their own special throws. For example, this past Mardi Gras, the Krewe of Muses (the all-woman parade) made shoes their theme, in honour of good old Bush almost getting beaned by one, and threw an assortment of shoe-themed objects: bracelets, bottle openers, dolls, and even a real pair of gold shoes. Throws are marked with the crest of the Krewe and many people I know keep their really good throws long after the beads have been disposed of.

Although the season officially starts two weeks before Mardi Gras, the pre-season begins three weeks before with the Krewe du Vieux parade, so-named because it is the only float parade to be allowed to pass through the French Quarter (the Vieux Carre). In the old days, all parades traveled through the Quarter's narrow streets while people watched from their balconies. Most of the other pre-season parades are smaller neighbourhood events, but I definitely need to make mention of one of my favourite lesser-known walking parades, the Krewe of Barkus - the all dog parade! It's hilarious and attended by a crowd of animal-lovers who all bring their pets in carnival costume.

Nowadays the crowds and floats have grown exponentially and the parades have all been moved to wider streets as the city has grown. The two main routes wind through Uptown, along St. Charles Avenue (and pass one block from our old apartment) and from Downtown to Mid-city, along Canal Street (and pass one block from our new apartment!).

The final weekend leading up to Mardi Gras sees the big-hitters and the so-called 'super-krewes': Hermes, Krewe d'Etat (satirical), Muses (all-women) etc. Saturday night is home to the King of Parades, Endymion, with 2000 riders on over 30 colossal floats. Endymion attracts by far the largest crowds and always has celebrity riders.

Lundi Gras (Monday) has several large parades and culminates with Orpheus, a parade started by Harry Connick Jr. several years ago. He rides in it every year and invites a few friends along.

The big day itself starts early with Zulu, a parade that definitely stands out in look and feel. This Krewe is traditionally African-American and their rare throw, a Zulu hand-painted coconut, is probably the most sought after prize of the whole season. New Orleans even presented President Obama with a personalized Zulu coconut as a gift.

Zulu is followed immediately by Rex, the last of the float parades and a biggie - the whole city always seems to be at Rex. It finishes around noon and from then on the only thing to see is un-ending truck parades: basically, people go-go dancing on barely-decorated flat bed trucks - great for throws but boring as hell.

Around this time many people start heading down to Bourbon Street for one last hurrah before the spell ends at midnight. And it literally does end at midnight. On Mardi Gras Day all fun stops at 12:00am and most everyone goes home. It sometimes feels like a bit of an abrupt ending to out-of-towners, that everyone suddenly packs it in early on that final day. It may seem a contradiction, but New Orleans, debauched as it can get, is at it's heart a deeply Catholic city and Mardi Gras is rooted in the idea of a festival of excess before the season of Lent which highlights self-denial. So this midnight rule of ending Fat Tuesday at midnight is taken quite seriously by all.

There are other activities besides parades of course. Mardi Gras is also a season of balls for members of high society (which thrives in the rather old-fashioned south). Each Krewe chooses a King or Queen, generally amongst that season's debutantes, who are presented at these balls and then lead the Krewe's parade. Those attending the balls are always required to dress in costume.

Bourbon is still the place to be after the parades have ended each evening. We were lucky enough to be included in a private party at a hotel overlooking Bourbon this year and I discovered that throwing the beads to the drunken revelers was much more fun for me than being crushed down below. It's amazing what people will do for a string of cheap plastic beads.

So, there you have it. As succinctly as I can put it (and it's a damn long blog post). Mardi Gras is a fascinating festival in this city and definitely one that I feel everyone should see at least once in their life time (preferably while young enough to do stupid things without much guilt). So start saving for next year!

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