Once upon a time, Mardi Gras was limited to two distinctly separate celebrations: public parades for the masses and private balls for invited guests. Within the last 25 years, though, a new category of events has been added to the calendar. Nowadays, there are almost as many nonparading activities and organizations as there are traditional Carnival parades.
The Carnival season always starts on Twelfth Night — Jan. 6 — and ends on Fat Tuesday, which can occur as early as Feb. 3 or as late as March 9, meaning the season can be as short as 28 days or as long as 63 days.
No matter the date of Fat Tuesday or the length of the season, parish ordinances dictate that Mardi Gras parades must be scheduled within the 12 days preceding Fat Tuesday and must abide by certain rules. That’s why preseason “alternative parades” such as Krewe du Vieux and krewedelusion are permitted to march through the French Quarter and can feature themes that would not be allowed in a regular Carnival parade.
The case could be made that the first “alternative” parades were the Mardi Gras Indians; the truck krewes, which are an amalgam of independent groups; and the traditional marching clubs such as the Jefferson City Buzzards. These trailblazers, however, constitute only a small portion of the modern-day “other Mardi Gras.”
The streetcar ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows and the parade on horseback of St. Joan of Arc open the Carnival season each year.
Led by the legendary Krewe of Barkus, three canine parades currently romp through the city’s streets during Carnival season.
Events such as Metairie’s Family Gras and Endymion’s Samedi Gras party provide preparade concerts to warm up the crowds for the big events.
Krewes such as “tit Rex” and Chewbacchus bring color and flair to neighborhood celebrations in Bywater and Marigny, where for more than 30 years, the Society of St. Anne’s early morning Fat Tuesday promenade has thrilled locals and tourists alike.
Krewes such as Hermes, TNR and Comus parade on foot from French Quarter restaurants to the sites of their annual Carnival balls. Members often toss doubloons to surprised crowds.
Groups such as the Prima Donnas, the Divas and the Krewe of Cork also strut through the French Quarter on assigned routes.
Held three weeks before the actual Thoth parade, the annual “Thoth Caravan” in the Quarter is a mini-parade of major proportions.
Other popular French Quarter Carnival events include the greasing of the poles on Bourbon Street and the Bourbon Street Costume Contest.
Lundi Gras activities stretch from Kenner’s Rivertown to Woldenberg Park at the foot of Canal Street.
Among the more popular new male and female marching groups, many of which feature middle-aged performers, are the Bearded Oysters, the NOLA Cherry Bombs, the Camel Toe Lady Steppers, the Pussy Footers, the Muff-a-lotas, the Organ Grinders and the 610 Stompers.
From the Krewe of Elvi on scooters to the Big Easy Roller Girls on skates, modern-day Mardi Gras never lacks for new casts of colorful characters.
For a celebration once criticized for its perceived lack of diversity, Carnival in New Orleans has entered a golden age of diversity, inclusiveness and creative expression.