A first-time float rider’s perspective of the merriment of Mardi Gras.
As dusk engulfed New Orleans on an unusually chilly Lundi Gras (the day before Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday), I rolled down St. Charles Street on Nature’s Bounty, one of approximately 30 floats in the Krewe of Orpheus parade themed “Orpheus: The Enchanted World.” I made eye contact through my red mask with a young man so laden with strings of multi-colored beads, he looked as though he could collapse under the weight. But he wanted more and he wanted them from me, the gal at the very top of the massive, three-story float carrying 40 riders. He ran alongside, hands in the air, until I balled up a string of beads in my fist (they go farther that way) and threw it like a baseball. He caught them easily and draped them over his neck, adding to his collection that glittered under the street lamps. He gave me a thumbs up and I waved.
For me, the best thing about riding in the parade was these fleeting, one-on-one connections with individuals in the crowd.
The Big Easy has long been one of my favorite Southern cities and I have visited many times, but my initiation into the merry madness that is Mardi Gras came in 2014. I never thought my first parade would have me throwing beads instead of catching them.
Fun for all ages
As we continued our slow progress through the Garden District, a charming neighborhood known for its imposing antebellum mansions, I was almost eye-to-eye with children perched atop ladders for a better view of the action. Homemade ladder seats kept them safe and prevented them from getting lost in the crowd. They looked like little lifeguards up there, but they wore beads around their necks instead of whistles.
I saved the soft “throws” (small, stuffed toys) for the little ones so I didn’t risk accidently conking them in the head with a fistful of beads. I showered them with treasures and was delighted when they caught one on their own instead of having to depend on a parent to pick it up. They were well prepared with huge bags to haul home all their Mardi Gras loot.
I was pleased to discover that the majority of the parades are G-rated family entertainment. Adults looking to indulge in alcohol-infused escapades can do so, but most of that scene plays out on Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday after the parades.
I’m not a celebrity like filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, the parade monarch who led our evening procession through Uptown, but I felt like one as revelers shouted and waved from below. Like the other “superkrewes” (krewes are social clubs that organize parades and balls during carnival season), Orpheus has a tradition of celebrity monarchs. Vanessa Williams, Sandra Bullock, Whoopi Goldberg, Stevie Wonder, and Joan Rivers have reigned over the festivities in the past.
The most extravagant parades of the season are staged by superkrewes that try to outdo themselves and each other every year with high-tech, animated floats that regularly set carnival records. New Orleans is home to 33 krewes, but only three superkrewes: Bacchus, Endymion, and Orpheus. Bacchus debuted its first mega parade in 1969, long before the term superkrewe was coined, and Endymion followed suit a few years later. Orpheus, founded by New Orleans native son Harry Connick Jr. in 1993, is considered the new kid on the block, but its lavish parades are a perennial crowd pleaser.
A new parade theme is introduced every year, but superkrewes have signature floats that are always part of the fun regardless of the theme. It wouldn’t be an Orpheus parade without Smoking Mary, a six-unit float that looks like a steam locomotive, or the Leviathan, a 139-foot dragon that breathes smoke and twinkles with thousands of colorful lights.
The post-parade party
After a couple of hours of throwing, I was temporarily sidelined by pitcher’s elbow. When we paused to allow a marching band to perform, I turned from the crowd, took a deep breath and sank into a sea of purple, gold, and green beads like a kid in a ball pit. It seemed plausible that I could get sucked so far into the quagmire of baubles I might never re-emerge.
When my float mates and I began our sojourn from the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the beads were hung on hooks with extras packed neatly in containers. The toys were in plastic bags. Very tidy and organized. But after hours of dozens of riders frantically ripping open those bags to keep up with crowd demand, the float had become a rolling pit of sparkling Mardi Gras debris.
I was thrilled to have this once-in-a-lifetime chance to ride in a Mardi Gras parade, but I was also exhausted–and the night was young. I wondered if New Orleanians are born with some sort of super party gene that gives them the fortitude to recuperate from the frenzy of the holidays and gear up for another round of festivities by Jan. 6 (the Feast of the Epiphany), the kickoff of carnival season and its whirlwind of parties. Not all visitors realize it, but Mardi Gras (Feb. 17 this year) is the conclusion of carnival, so by the time it rolls around, New Orleans has been partying for weeks.
All this hedonistic merrymaking may seem incongruous with carnival’s religious roots, but the whole festival is connected to a series of religious holidays, beginning with the Feast of the Epiphany, the day the wise men brought gifts to baby Jesus, as described in the Bible. Mardi Gras is the last day of indulgence before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, which is a period of sacrifice and repentance leading up to Easter. The day after Mardi Gras, some of carnival’s most raucous carousers solemnly head to Mass at St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, the oldest cathedral in continual use in North America.
But today, nobody is thinking about church.
At last, our procession rolled back into the convention center where we had started. The Orpheuscapade Ball was in full swing and we were greeted enthusiastically by ladies in graceful gowns and gentlemen in tuxedos. Energized by the crowd, I overcame my exhaustion. I was ready to get my groove on New Orleans style. I jumped off the float and removed my mask for the first time since the parade began. I was no longer just observing revelers, I was one, and was ready to let the good times roll.
Tracey Teo is a contributor from Evansville, Ind.
January/February 2015 Issue
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