St. Patrick's Day
Most towns are quite content with one St. Patrick's Day parade -- but this is not enough for us. In New Orleans and Metairie are five parades, several block parties and some events that overlap with St. Joseph's Day. Each parade has its own character, but what they all have in common is an Irish giddiness, green and white themes, and marching clubs of tuxedoed men trading beads and paper flowers for kisses.
I love the wildly fun Irish Channel parade, which winds down the Lower Garden District part of Magazine Street before hitting St. Charles Avenue. On this Irish day, we all become crazy for cabbages. Float riders hand off the heavy spheres to the crowds, rather than the glory days of hurling them, but we are still giddy with excitement to get those cabbages. Onions and carrots are good, too. One year, by the end of the day, I was hauling around a 4-foot long plastic produce bag with at least 20 cabbages, more than I could possibly use. But dang it, I had caught them, and they were my booty. I'm still quite proud of that triumphant day.
The night before the Irish Channel parade, Jim Monaghan's Irish Club parade makes its way through the French Quarter. The Sunday after the Irish Channel parade, Old Metairie holds its St. Patrick's Day parade, winding down oak-lined Metairie Road. This is great family neighborhood fun with marching clubs, cabbages and Moon Pies. On St. Patrick's Day, a number of block parties take place, including the wildly popular Parasol's (at 3rd and Constance streets) as well as Bourre's Bar in Gretna and the Irish Channel Block Party (on the 1400 block of Annunciation Street).
On Thursday evening, the Downtown Irish Club takes to the streets of the Bywater neighborhood, parading down Royal Street and into the French Quarter. This is a favorite of mine and I especially like to catch them toward the beginning, when they take a pit stop at Markey's Bar. The Irish part of this week's worth of activities finally winds down with the Irish-Italian Parade on Sunday in Metairie down Veterans Memorial Boulevard.
St. Joseph's Day
Just as the Irish hold on the city is waning, the Italians take over with their annual celebration of St. Joseph's Day on March 19. Lore holds that during the Middle Ages, Sicilians, plagued by famines and droughts, prayed to the patron saint of Italy, St. Joseph, for much-needed rain. To show their gratitude for the life-saving rain, the Sicilians offered a day of feast with altars of food that was then distributed to the poor and needy.
Now, at churches, restaurants, private homes and other venues in the area, altars are built and the public is invited for viewing -- usually on March 18 and 19. The West Bank has a number of locations with one of the most spectacular displays at the St. Joseph Church in Gretna. After morning Mass, you may go through the meal line sampling a variety of Italian meatless dishes -- stuffed eggplant, artichokes, spaghetti and much more, prepared by parishioners. The 40-foot altar is elaborately decorated with bowls of cookies and fruit, religious statues and symbols, candles, flowers and baked goods in shapes as varied as Jesus' sandals or sheep. As you leave, you're handed a small brown bag containing Italian cookies, a prayer card and a "lucky" fava bean. Although there is no charge to view the altars, feel free to make a small contribution.
Oh, and there must be a parade. The St. Joseph's Day parade on March 19 winds its way through the French Quarter. This year's guest of honor is Joe Gannascoli (Vito from HBO's The Sopranos). It's just another chance to delve into a Louisiana tradition of history, food and quirky characteristics, all driven by ethnic pride.
Also tied into St. Joseph's Day is the opportunity to see Mardi Gras Indians on Super Sunday and St. Joseph's night. I'm hazy on the exact origin of the feast day's connection with Mardi Gras Indians, but it has become a tradition for the Indians to march through the streets of Central City on St. Joseph's night. This is as grassroots as it gets. Unlike the planned route procession of Super Sunday, you have to keep your eyes open for a gang of beaded and bejeweled Indians (LaSalle street from Washington to Jackson streets is a likely area) and then just follow them into the neighborhoods to witness the ritual of song and dance. The Indians start making their way through the neighborhoods around sundown, eventually winding up at A.L. Davis Park at Washington and LaSalle streets by about 8 p.m.
I'm thinking Super Sunday got its name because of the guarantee of seeing dozens of elaborately dressed Indians in one spot. As a spectator, I arrive to hang out an hour or two before the procession begins, just to take in the wondrous scene. As the Indians and the brass bands get underway, you can fall in behind to follow along their route.
Mardi Gras Indians tend to follow their own timetables -- and the event can get called on account of weather and even more variable circumstances, some of which can remain a mystery. Here is what I've gleaned over the years about how to catch Super Sunday: it usually takes place on the closest Sunday after St. Joseph's Day. There are two groups that hold Super Sunday -- The New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council (starting at Washington and LaSalle streets) and the Tambourine and Fan club (starting at Orleans Avenue and Moss Street on Bayou St. John). They both prefer to parade on one Sunday. Some years they both go out on this day. Other years, one group parades on this Sunday then the other group parades on the following Sunday. Most years, we think we know what's going to happen, but then it doesn't.
At press time, both groups say they are planning to parade this year on March 20. The New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council parade starts at the A.L. Davis Park around 1 p.m., parading through the neighborhood winding up back at the park around 4 p.m. The Tambourine and Fan's parade starts around 1 p.m., parading down Orleans Avenue and ending up at Hunter's Field at Claiborne and St. Bernard avenues around 4 p.m.