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Monday, February 25, 2013

Mardi Gras Explained - New Orleans Part 1

Sometimes we have things on our bucket lists that we don't even know we have written there. When an invitation came to ride a float in the 2013 New Orleans Mardi Gras, DH (darling husband) turned pale, gulped and then smiled bravely. We were going to New Orleans.

To an Australian, the concept of "Mardi Gras" means only one thing...the Sydney Mardi Gras, an annual celebration of gay pride. Visions of gold spangly shorts and nipple tassels sprang into my friends' eyes when I  announced our impending visit to Louisiana. No, we were not coming out! The New Orleans Mardi Gras, like Rio's Carnival, has its origins deeply rooted in Christian tradition. That's right... Christian tradition.

So before I share my own experience of riding a float in the New Orleans Mardi Gras, I feel a little explanation about the New Orleans Mardi Gras is required!

"Mardi Gras" means literally "Fat Tuesday" and is the day we know as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. It was the day of celebration and feasting before the privations of Lent - hence our own pancake day tradition. In New Orleans it is a season commencing with Epiphany (the day in the Christian calendar when the   baby Jesus is visited by the three wise men) and the appearance of the King cakes. King cakes are a highlight of the Mardi Gras. A sort of cinnamon roll (or doughnut pastry) iced with the traditional Mardi Gras colors of green (meaning faith), gold (power) and purple (justice) and containing a trinket - a small plastic baby symbolising the baby Jesus. My friend, M, a teacher tells me it is a tradition to bring King cakes to school and whoever finds the baby in their piece has to bring the next King Cake. 

A King Cake - baby in centre

 The New Orleans Mardi Gras, as we know it, began in the 1850s with the first parade by the Krewe of Comus and is these days, a highly efficient and regulated event. For example no advertising material is allowed and costume is to be worn at all times on the float. Costume consists of a hat, mask and tunic (no little spangly shorts involved!). As I discovered, being a float rider is both hot and dirty work so the costume serves a practical purpose apart from preserving the anonymity of the rider!

Mardi Gras is not just one parade on one day, a whole  parade season begins two weeks before Mardi Gras day with daily parades. No parades now go through the French Quarter itself - the main route is St. Charles Avenue and down Canal Street. Many parishes (local council areas) in New Orleans have their own local parades as well. 

A KREWE is a social grouping,  each responsible for the organisation of its own parade. There are at least 50 Krewes in New Orleans. Some are all women, many just all men (the more traditional Krewes), some are for African Americans (Krewe of Zulu - although I was astonished to see that some of the riders in Zulu were white people in black face!). Our own Krewe, the Krewe of Morpheus is a comparative newcomer, formed in 2002 and being a "co-ed" Krewe, meaning both men and women can be members. More on Morpheus later!

While each Krewe has its own King and Queen, there is one King for the whole Mardi Gras Season, called Rex. The Krewe of Rex and the Krewe of Zulu, the two oldest and (arguably) the most important of Krewes are the only Krewes to parade on Mardi Gras day. The Krewe of Morpheus parades on the Friday night before Mardi Gras day and is the last Krewe to parade, commencing officially at 7.00 pm,  following the Krewes of Hermes and d'Etat.

Morpheus Throws
"Throws". Originally these were glass beads, a rather expensive option leading to alternatives such as Coconuts (wouldn't want to be hit by one of them!) which still form part of the Zulu tradition. In addition to the coloured plastic beads of every shape, size and description, each Krewe has its own merchandise (soft toys, plastic cups etc.) and doubloons (aluminium coins). These items are thrown from the floats into the waiting (and expectant crowd). "Throw me something mister..." is a catch cry of the parade. A note...the items are purchased by the individual float riders. 

Bourbon Street crowd waiting for throws
Finally a word on Bourbon Street. As I said, the parades themselves no longer enter the old French Quarter, but Mardi Gras celebrations are firmly centred on Bourbon Street, where revellers, some masked and costumed and clutching a vile green drink called a Hand Grenade, celebrate into the night. Party goers line the balconies of the beautiful old buildings tossing throws into the crowd below. This is where things get interesting and the "tradition" of flashing for throws is to be seen. 

So now, dear readers, you have some of the background to Mardi this space for Part 2 (on Wednesday) and my own experience of riding a float in the 2013 New Orleans Mardi Gras!

Alison waiting to ride Float 16....