Mardi Gras in the New Orleans Area
Mardi Gras Papare Doubloons
Mardi Gras in the New Orleans Area
Mardi Gras comes on a Tuesday every year, and is always just before the beginning of Lent. Lent is forty days of somber preparation before Easter, and is the forty days, excluding Sundays, immediately prior to Easter. Because Easter moves, so does Mardi Gras. It can be as late as early March, but normally occurs in February. It is the final day of plenty before what was some time back, and not that long ago, was a period of fasting and abstinence. Translated from the French, the name means Fat Tuesday, which in older times was the day the fattened calf was cooked for a feast.
Mardi Gras, being associated with Lent, has its origins in the Roman Catholic countries of Europe. Louisiana was initially settled by the French, and later owned by Spain, then again by France. Many of the people in the area in the eighteen hundreds were descendants of French and the Spanish.
In 1872 Mardi Gras was celebrated with a day parade to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff by the men who would become the Rex organization. The colors of purple, symbolizing justice, gold for power, and green for faith were presented to the Grand Duke, and are now the colors of Mardi Gras. The origins of Mardi Gras in Louisiana predate this event, but this is what really caused the celebration to take hold. Despite popular belief, Mobile had Mardi Gras before New Orleans.
February is often cold, and occasionally rain will fall, but it is unlikely sleet or snow will make an appearance. Sleet and snow are rare events in the New Orleans area, not falling every year in the southeastern portion of Louisiana. But, the humidity can make a biting cold. On the other hand, temperatures can warm to the low eighties between fronts. You never know what the weather will be like, and must be prepared for a variety of possibilities.
Mardi Gras Float Designs
The Parades in New Orleans and in Metairie
Parades normally start on a Friday which falls on the twelfth day prior to Lent. Many parades are run by organizations called krewes, and are free to attend. Riders wear costumes, and the parades have a theme. The riders of the floats dress in costumes related to the title of their float. Between the floats are bands and dancing groups. Other groups such as horse riding organizations and motor cycle groups also participate.
During slow economic times the krewes, which pay the bands and other groups to participate, began cutting back. And, attrition of those dropping out of the krewes because of the dues and the cost of the items they throw often reduced the number of floats the krewe could afford. Soon, restrictions were placed on the krewes with a minimum number of floats and a minimum number of bands, and some could no longer parade. Others moved to the more desirable weekend time slots as they opened. It is harder to find parades on certain weekdays, and in Metairie all parades have moved to weekends except for the Monday night right before Mardi Gras.
Parking is easier in Metairie, since the parade travels a business corridor where parking is easy. Most businesses close, and using their lots is usually not a problem.
The day before Mardi Gras used to be uneventful until the night parades rolled. Now, the two courts, Rex and Zulu, meet. The event gives the day some Mardi Gras significance. Although neither Rex nor Zulu will parade until Mardi Gras itself, the event does draw a crowd.
The Doubloons, Cups, and Special Krewe Beads
Mardi Gras krewes throw things, purchased by the members, to the people who watch the parade. The throws were beads and small trinkets many years ago. Then, in 1960, Rex introduced doubloons, aluminum medallions that identify the krewe, year, and parade theme. These can be colorized by being anodized. Eventually, plastic cups with parade art were added, and surpassed the doubloons in desirability. They also cost less, so some krewes abandoned the doubloon, while others now throw both cups and doubloons. Beads with the krewe insignia have gotten more elaborate, and are also sought as prize catches.
Some krewes, including some that do not parade, produce a fine silver collectible doubloon, an oxidized silver doubloon, or possibly other doubloons for the members. These are highly collectible, and not easily found.
Madri Gras season officially starts on January 6, and any night after the start date Mardi Gras balls might be found. In fact, due to too few venues there are some that precede the start of the Mardi Gras season.
Balls are usually presided over by a king or a queen, and have a royal court. There is usually a theme that matches the parade theme if the krewe has a parade. Costumes can be elaborate, and these balls are often closed. One must be invited to attend. A few exceptions exist, and it is more likely to be able to buy a ticket for a super krewe’s ball than other balls.
Some parading krewes have their ball right after their parade, and the members wear their costumes right from the floats onto the ballroom floor.
Some krewes are secret, and continue to wear their masks during their balls. Others allow their members’ identities to be known.
Mardi Gras Invitations
Invitations to Mardi Gras balls can be ornate. These are collectible, and the older ones are very desirable. Collectability depends on the supply, and with few available as is the case with older invitations the value goes up. The fewer available, and the more ornate an invitation is, the better for collecting.
Mardi Gras Jewelry: Includes Favors
Krewe members often hand our favors at the ball. This is especially true it the recipient has a call out, or an invitation for a certain dance. Krewe members have a card and fill in names of people with whom they have a scheduled dance, and it is customary if a person is called from the audience to dance that a special favor is bestowed. These favors can become collectible. Of course there can be more favors made than invitations, since each member may dance with several people during the course of the ball.
Mardi Gras Costumes of Float Riders from the Past
Mardi Gras Day
The parades in New Orleans day include Zulu, the first to roll, and Rex. In Metairie the Krewe of Argus parades. There currently is no night parade.
It is acceptable to mask on Mardi Gras Day, and in some cases very elaborate costumes are worn. Some families costume alike. The tradition of masking is slowly diminishing and it seems fewer people are wearing costumes than in days gone by. Some visitors erroneously think costumes are worn during the entire season, but only on Mardi Gras Day will masking be acceptable, and masking is certainly not required. More people do not mask than do.
One problem with costumes is it is difficult to plan ahead, since the temperature can be in the thirties or in the eighties. Heavy clothing can be overheating during some years, and light clothing can be a problem when the weather is colder.
Since the parades pass before or near noon in many places, it is common for picnics to spring up. Some people even bring out a grill and set up for a long day.
One problem on Mardi Gras Day is the difficulty of getting close to a parade. People bring our ladders, and set them up adjacent to each other. Locals add seats to the ladders and use them for children, but they are not really necessary. Many remain empty for the parades. Another problem is the blankets spread so people can claim a portion of the public right of way. Add in lawn chairs and ice chests and the parades are practically walled off. While laws do not allow ladders right at the curb, it normally is ignored.
Crowds can be thick, and many children are out. Some people seem to be unaware that children running about are put at risk of being burned by their cigarettes, and rudely light their cigarettes and wave them carelessly in a crowd. This also endangers those in flammable costumes.
After the Rex and Argus parades are the truck parades, where families and groups of friends get together, decorate a truck, and costume as a group. There are many trucks following the main parades, and it can take hours for all of them to pass. They do throw more than those on the floats in many cases, but then they have no dues for the organization.
The Super Krewes
On the Saturday before Mardi Gras Endymion rolls, the first of the super krewes, and the oldest. On Sunday comes Bacchus, the next oldest super krewe parade, and finally on Monday comes the final super krewe, the krewe of Orpheus. These three parades are larger, have more riders, and attract more people than most parades, except for those on Mardi Gras Day which attract the largest crowds. Some of the floats are signature floats, and are used year after year, while others match the current year’s theme.
The super krewes also use celebrities as Grand Marshalls or as monarchs to attract more people, and seem to have developed a silent competition with each other. A celebrity Grand Marchall throws a special doubloon with the celebrity’s image on it. These can become more collectible than other parade doubloons from the same parade.
Family Gras is a more recent part of the Mardi Gras season. It is a music and food festival, or at least it appears to be one. It was established in Metairie to give people an activity to be enjoyed between parades. Stages are set up and bands play. Admission is free, or I believe it so. Of course you do pay for the food and drink consumed.
Family Gras is located on the neutral ground, or as most people not from the region would say, the median of Veterans Memorial Highway between Causeway Boulevard and Severn Avenue.
Family Gras was initially held on the weekend before Mardi Gras, and struggled to reach its potential because too many people would wait all day for a super krewe in New Orleans. Then, one year things had to change, because the weekend was also the Super Bowl, and the game was in New Orleans. The event moved forward a week, and now has a permanent schedule a week ahead of Mardi Gras. It is unfortunate that most visitors are not yet in town, but many of them would be at the parades instead of at Family Gras.
The Corps de Napoleon
In an effort to bring back old traditions the Corps de Napoleon parades with some older float types being pulled by mules in between the larger more modern floats. As a parade, it is a little different, and parades in Metairie on the Sunday before Mardi Gras. It is well worth catching. Some people go to the beginning of the New Orleans parade and race to the end of Napoleon’s route to catch both.