Roads Traveled with Linda L. Osmundson
When we disembarked from the American Queen in New Orleans at the end of our Mississippi cruise, little did we know we were stepping into the beginning of Carnival. Not a carnival with Ferris wheels and rollercoasters, but the city’s season of fun, food, frivolity, parades, and masked balls before the somber days of abstinence during Lent.
I discovered my misconceptions of Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) as we toured Mardi Gras World, the company that creates many of the floats for parades held during the season. First of all, not all events are rowdy, drunken brawls; most are family friendly.
Mardi Gras began when the early Catholic Church converted the Roman masses. The Holy fathers realized the people returned to their pagan rites during certain times of the year, so it was decided to tie those pagan rituals to Christian celebrations. Thus, Carnival was born. They deemed Epiphany the beginning, and the day before Ash Wednesday (Mardi Gras) the end (in 2013 it’s from January 6 through February 12).
Although close to seventy parades and a hundred and twenty-five balls occur during that time, our tour guide concentrated on the last twelve days of the season when the largest floats and longest parades march through the city of New Orleans. He explained that these major processions can sometimes last six to eight hours so they design bathrooms onboard floats disguised to fit into the theme. He also debunked my belief that only one large parade on Mardi Gras rolled through the French Quarter. Parades no longer take place on those narrow streets deemed to pose safety hazards for crowds and parade participants. Actually, eight Mardi Gras parades will culminate this season and roll throughout metropolitan New Orleans on February 12.
Krewes (social organizations with the sole purpose of Carnival entertainment for its members and partly shared with the community) parade on foot or floats funded from membership dues. Formal masked balls are by invitation only to krewe members. A few clubs in recent years held large events in the Superdome or convention center open to anyone who purchased a ticket. Find a directory of krewes and their events online at here.
To understand krewe parades, consider the Rose Bowl set up by a single authority. In the case of Carnival, that authority would be called a krewe. Each year clubs choose a new theme from history, children’s stories, legends, geography, famous people, entertainment, mythology, or literature then authorize, plan, and fund a parade and ball.
Our tour guide showed us how they recycle float figures and design new ones. We observed staff working on one large cityscape side panel. They glued individual beads cut from necklaces to the mural. When complete, one million beads will glitz the panel.
At the end of our tour, the guide offered us King Cake, a staple of Carnival. These cakes have a trinket, most likely a baby, hidden inside or placed beneath a piece. Whoever finds the baby gets a year of special privileges. No one in our group was lucky.
After our tour, I wandered through the French Quarter. Shop after shop stocked bead necklaces and masks in Carnival colors – purple representing justice, green standing for faith, and gold signifying power. Although daytime street masking is prohibited except on Mardi Gras, all float participants are required to wear some kind of mask whether full or half-sized, face paint, or bandit type cloth. Revelers line parade routes and shout, “Throw me something, Mister” in hopes that a rider will toss them a souvenir “throw” such as necklaces, monogrammed items, or doubloons (minted coins with a krewe’s insignia).
Unfortunately, we flew home on Epiphany and therefore were unable to witness one of the first parades that evening. If I could celebrate Carnival in New Orleans, I’d choose a time earlier during the season; less people, better view, and more family friendly.
Celebrate Mardi Gras here in Colorado
Invite friends, pick a theme, and require guests wear a costume. Provide materials to make masks – purchase cheap eye masks then provide glitter, beads, glue, scissors, and decorations such as feathers. Choose the best male and female costumes and crown the winners as King and Queen. Serve gumbo, andouille sausage with red beans and rice, or another southern dish. Be sure to serve cake. Insert a tiny baby trinket and give a prize to the person who finds it. Mostly, have fun!