Krewes barely have time to take a breath during years like these, when Carnival season is short.
“When the clock strikes midnight becoming Jan. 1, it’s, ‘Oh my god, here we go,’ ” said Sonny Borey, captain of the Krewe of Orpheus, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
Each year, Carnival season officially begins on Jan. 6 and ends on Mardi Gras day, which falls on Feb. 13 this year. That compresses the 2018 Carnival season into six weeks. Also this year, the tricentennial celebration for New Orleans has been incorporated into much of the revelry.
Though compact, fast-paced Carnival seasons can build excitement more quickly, said Carnival historian Arthur Hardy, though hotel occupancy generally is lower and seasonal enterprises like king cake sales also suffer when the season is short.
On Saturday morning, Hardy helped celebrate the first of several “Kings Day” events, as Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other city officials joined Borey and other krewe captains at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World on the east bank to cut a ceremonial king cake and kick off the 2018 Carnival season.
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This year’s Carnival marks 25 years for Orpheus and 50 years for three other key krewes: Bacchus, Tucks and the gay krewe Armeinius. An Uptown walking club called the Corner Carnival Club celebrates 100 years this year.
A half-century ago was a big time for Carnival, as Armeinius kicked off under the theme “Year of the Queen” and Bacchus rolled as the first superkrewe.
“There are moments in Carnival history where something catalytic happens,” said Landrieu aide Scott Hutcheson, recounting the era of the superkrewes launched by Bacchus and the more recent explosion of all-female krewes such as Muses, Nyx and Femme Fatale.
“Before Bacchus started, the Sunday before Mardi Gras was a dead night,” Hardy said.
Though Bacchus started in a big way, Tucks began more modestly, as a neighborhood group that paraded with pickup trucks and boats on trailers, Hardy said.
In 1993, another superkrewe, Orpheus, stepped into a Monday-night slot left open by the old-line krewe of Proteus, which had stopped parading in 1992 after a city ordinance required all krewes to open their private membership.
When Proteus returned in 2000, Monday night became “the greatest doubleheader in Carnival,” Hardy said. “It’s the oldest night parade, Proteus, followed by a spectacular superkrewe, Orpheus. That night represents three centuries of Mardi Gras, from replicas of what rolled in 1882 to the most modern floats in Carnival.”
This year, though years of street construction on Napoleon and Jefferson avenues have ended, there’s been a change on the other end of the St. Charles Avenue parade route, eliminating the loop toward the lake on Canal Street, in order to help keep the street open for emergency vehicles.
Police are also on extra alert to separate traffic from pedestrians and crowds, given the crash during the Endymion parade last year, when a drunk driver plowed into a crowd, gravely injuring several people.
With that in mind, Hardy said he is hoping for “a normal, non-eventful Mardi Gras. Normal is good.”
The Mayor’s Mardi Gras Advisory Committee made a much-talked-about change this year, recommending that krewes place only one unit — a marching band, walking group or performance group — between each pair of floats. It is an effort to shorten parading days and nights that have stretched hours longer than they used to, putting a strain on first responders and on schoolkids in marching bands.
“It’s about pace,” said Hutcheson, describing how krewe captains have instructed their units to perform and move at the same time.
Borey said units in his parade are instructed that the only place they can stop completely, “for 20 or 30 seconds,” is in front of the mayor’s reviewing stand at Gallier Hall. “Otherwise, they need to keep moving,” Borey said, noting that a few groups who didn’t follow those instructions no longer parade with Orpheus.
At the Kings Day celebration at Mardi Gras World, each speaker made special mention of this year, the city's 300th birthday.
Zulu’s theme this year is “Celebrating the Tricentennial of New Orleans, Zulu-style.”
With its theme, “L’Ancienne Nouvelle-Orléans,” Rex's floats will depict people, places and events that shaped the city, with a focus on the first century, up through the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
On Saturday, people across the metro area ate king cake in honor of Kings Day, which is also celebrated as Twelfth Night, because it’s considered the 12th day of the Christmas season. Though some bakeries now produce king cakes all year long, many locals consider it sacrilege to eat king cake before Jan. 6.
Lots of celebrations were held around the area Saturday. Jefferson Parish kicked off its official Carnival season at Mardi Gras Plaza in front of Lakeside Shopping Center. In downtown Covington, the St. John’s Fools of Misrule marched.
On Saturday night, two costumed groups took their annual ceremonial rides on streetcars: the Phunny Phorty Phellows, who in 1981 began heralding the arrival of Carnival with a ride down St. Charles Avenue, and the Not So Secret Society of Elysian Fields, which started a similar ride on the St. Claude Avenue streetcar line last year.
On Saturday night, Landrieu and Mayor Olivier Carré of Orléans, France, planned to toast the Krewe of Joan of Arc, a walking parade in the French Quarter that honors the "maid of Orleans" with paraders dressed in medieval costumes and armor, dance troupes and angels. The procession passes by the statue of the saint next to the French Market, a gift from France.
Across the Atlantic in the original Orléans, Joan of Arc is celebrated during an annual festival as the heroine who liberated that city from the English in 1429. And in 1718, 300 years ago, New Orleans was founded in honor of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans.
For the first time Saturday night, the city also sponsored Kings Day fireworks on the Mississippi River, in honor of the tricentennial.
Folding the tricentennial celebration into Carnival made perfect sense to Hutcheson. “In New Orleans, our past always is a part of our present and our future,” he said.