It’s 6 January – Epiphany – and I’m standing in the French Quarter, beside the gilded statue of Joan of Arc on Decatur Street, the smell of beignets and chicory coffee from the nearby Café du Monde curling about my nostrils. The Maid of Orléans is 606 years old today, and here in New Orleans, for the 10th consecutive year, the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc is paying homage to her.
Another delightful inclusion in this exhibition are the collaged tape cases made by Louis Armstrong in his home recording studio. Armstrong evidently made hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes containing snippets of his music, that of other musicians, and conversations with friends. Starting in the mid-1950s he began decorating the five-by-seven tape boxes with collage elements that he cut from newspapers and magazines. Using cellophane tape, he laid images and notes about the boxes’ contents. Over the decades, the tape has yellowed and has now become an active design element in the work. The cases offer a view into Armstron’s brain, which, if evidenced by these collages, was amusing, political, raunchy, and delighted by life.
Four hundred or so people are trooping past in medieval garb, on foot and horseback, some singing madrigals or playing pipes, others tossing handmade mementoes – cork horses, sword pendants and shield-shaped doubloons – into the crowd. All the main players from the Hundred Years’ War are here, and there are 10 Joans of different vintages, as well as a priory of monks and a band of angels.
Mardi Gras will soon be upon New Orleans. In the coming days, guests will outnumber locals four to one, but they’re undaunted. Not only have they been throwing this party – “the greatest free show on Earth” – for more than 160 years, they’ve been up to their ears in festivities for more than a month already. Mardi Gras Day – “Fat Tuesday”, 13 February this year – is but the grand finale of a carnival season that’s been going since Twelfth Night. No sooner had Christmas fed its trees into the chipper than the first parades took to the streets and beads rained down like hail.
This is the New Orleans way. This is a dark-days party town, with no let-up from Halloween till Lent. The porches of shotgun cottages stay decorated for six months – the purple, green and gold of Mardi Gras seamlessly replacing the nativity scenes that supplanted the giant pumpkins that superseded the killer clowns.
Though it’s not a religious holiday, the date of Mardi Gras is tied to Easter, the original moveable feast. It’s the last day of unabashed indulgence – or, rather, of bacchanalian excess – before Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins. Like a lot of Christian calendar traditions, it has its roots in a pagan festival: the Lupercalia, a three-day Roman fertility rite that takes place in February. Not that anyone who’s been here during Mardi Gras needs to be told that.
Celebrate Mardi Gras the Pittsburgh way
Mardi Gras was brought to what is now Louisiana at the turn of the 17th century by a couple of explorers, the French-Canadian Le Moyne brothers, Sirs Iberville and Bienville. The latter went on to found New Orleans in 1718 – and for as long as the French controlled the city, the day was celebrated freely. Much of what we associate with the event today – social clubs (known as “krewes”) holding coronations, masked balls and processions, as well as debauchery – was established then.
Nonprofit organisations that serve their communities all year round, krewes fund their often astronomically costly parades themselves. Defrayed by fundraising revenues, membership dues, ball admission charges and raffling off rides on floats, the bills for the extravaganzas laid on by the “super-krewes” – such as Endymion, Bacchus and Orpheus – can run into millions.
Party all weekend at Mardi Gras Galveston
At the Krewe of The Rex Den, there’s no disguising where that money goes. Their HQ is a hangar-sized warehouse that strains to contain the 27 palatially dimensioned floats that will feature in this year’s parade. Instituted in 1872, Rex – whose regent is crowned the King of Carnival – is one of the oldest participating groups, and gave us many of the things that define New Orleans’s Mardi Gras today, including its official anthem, flag and colours. It is dedicated to more than pomp and circumstance, however.
Last year’s “king”, Dr Stephen Hales, explains: “Rex’s motto is ‘Pro Bono Publico’: for the public good. We set up a foundation with that name after Hurricane Katrina to help rebuild the city, and our aim now is to ensure that every child in New Orleans – whatever their background or ability – has access to an excellent education. In the past 12 months we’ve made grants to schools and supporting organisations of more than $5.5m [£4m].”
Founded in 1856 by six white protestants from Mobile, Alabama, the Mistick Krewe of Comus used to be the oldest parading group, but it withdrew from the schedule in 1992 after refusing to sign an ordinance that required it to certify publicly that it didn’t discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation. It still hosts a ball on Mardi Gras night, however, to which the King of Carnival and his queen are invited, and continues to keep its membership masonically secret.
And then there’s the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a predominantly African-American krewe formed in 1909 in an attempt to grab for its members a piece of Mardi Gras in which they had only ever been offered bit parts, as lowly flambeau carriers, marching with kerosene torches to illuminate the amusement of others. Film director Spike Lee has been asked to ride with them as celebrity Grand Marshal this year.
The Zulus are scheduled to hit the road first on Fat Tuesday, at 8am, but they are often late – perhaps still reeling from the free party they put on the day before in Woldenberg Park. Should people live in the 6th Ward or Tremé neighbourhoods and need a wake-up call, the North Side Skull and Bone Gang, a group of maskers who dress as skeletons, wake at dawn to knock on doors and bluesily chant: “We come to remind you before you die. You better get your life together. Next time you see us, it’s too late to cry.”
Party NOLA-style at these local Mardi Gras events
The parades may be raucous, but – as with the Joan of Arc one in January – the air is soft, the mood generous and the effect of it all wonderfully, deeply mysterious. I remember what Amy Kirk Duvoisin, captain and founder of the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc, said about her Twelfth Night event. “Joan has been an obsession of mine since I was a teenager,” she told me. “She saved France. Without her, New Orleans might never have happened. What a debt we owe this teenager. Without her single-mindedness of purpose and courage we wouldn’t be here.”
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Harris’ ownership of the sandwich shop is through a federal program called the Randolph-Sheppard Act that gives priority to visually impaired people to operate vending facilities on federal and state property. She was required to submit a bid and business plan for operating the cafe.
Mardi Gras is pure sensory overload, and no attraction defines the celebration better than its parades. Every year, the city of New Orleans is awash in garish greens, yellows, and purples as armies of ornate, bombastic floats roll through the streets. But if you think drunkenly asking for a seat on one of these floats is going to work, well … it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The dozens of Mardi Gras parades are thrown by groups called “krewes,” which are basically the organizations that stage these events. There are krewes with all sorts of themes: there’s the Krewe of Cleopatra, which was originally formed just for women; the Krewe of Mid-City, with their tinfoil-decorated floats; the Krewe of Orpheus, founded by Harry Connick Jr., whose floats usually feature a celebrity or two; and plenty more.
“It just kind of happened,” she said of taking on a second business. “Sometimes I’m like petrified, sometimes I’m overjoyed. But I know we can’t let this business die, so I’m really happy that somebody’s continuing it, and I’m extra happy that it’s me!”
Rain or shine: The party continues in Galveston for Mardi Gras
Members of these krewes are who you see riding on the floats throughout the season, decked out in masks and costumes. In fact, float-riders are required by law to wear a mask to keep up the festival’s mystique. To get on these floats you have to be a member, which involves a whole other process, depending on which krewe you choose.
Some krewes will bring you on board for a small entry fee, though this probably means you’ll be helping put together the floats, buying your own costumes, etc. Others—especially for the larger and more established krewes—have a bigger fee and even hold reviews by senior members. Some of these krewes have been established within the past decade or two, while others, like the Krewe of Rex, have been around since the 19th century.
All membership requirements are unique. For the Krewe of Morpheus, for example, you would have needed to put in your $100 deposit in January to reserve a spot on a float (krewes have multiple floats of varying size). In total, their dues for the season are $550, which will get you a “Ride in the parade; Costume; Morpheus Bash (Pre-Parade Party); Post-Parade Party; & 1 Membership Medallion.”
The Krew of Pygmalion, a krewe started in 2000, offers a similar process, with an online application and a tiered membership system that begins at $450 with $150 down, all the way to $1375 with $300 down. Smaller, grassroots krewes have even cheaper dues, like the sci-fi-themed Krewe of Chewbacchus which charges $42 and once had Giorgio Tsoukalos of Ancient Aliens fame as the king of its float.
When: 7 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. Saturday, noon Sunday, 6:30 p.m. TuesdayWhere: 20th and Strand, Galveston, Galveston, GalvestonTickets: $16-$78.75; mardigrasgalveston.com
Many times, the larger krewes, like the Krewe of Muses, simply don’t have room for any more members. And even if there is an opening on some of these select krewes, you’d have to know a guy who knows a guy to even be considered for membership. So if you’re not from New Orleans (or a celebrity) and want to get into one of the notable krewes, it’s a tall order.
It was not clear what sparked the melee but according to a statement from the school’s principal, Jerel Bryant, the fight started when a “small group of spectators” walked into the crowd and verbally and physically assaulted members of the band and support teams. “With the help of chaperones and security, we separated our band from the group and continued marching. There were no other incidents on the route. Our kids persevered and put on a great show,” Bryant said.
If you’re planning a Mardi Gras trip this year, you’ll likely have to settle for walking the streets instead of riding down them. But, it’s never too early to start sending out those applications for 2019.
What happens to all that Mardi Gras glitter when it washes away?
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The fight erupted during a chaotic start to the city’s big parade weekend. A teen was arrested Thursday evening in a shooting incident after allegedly firing a gun into the air near the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Calliope Street as a parade passed. No one was injured in that incident, but the shots caused screaming people to run from the scene.
Every year, over 1 million people descend on New Orleans for Mardi Gras, an organized parade of debauchery and alcohol-induced torpor that may be the closest thing modern civilization has to the excesses of ancient Rome. Saturating the scene on Bourbon Street are plastic beads, handed or tossed to partygoers as a kind of currency. Some bare their breasts or offer booze in exchange for the tokens; others catch them in the air and wear the layers around their necks. Roughly 25 million pounds of beads are in circulation annually, making them as much a part of the Fat Tuesday celebration as sugary cocktails and King Cake.
Traditions and rituals can be hard to pin down, but Mardi Gras historians believe the idea of distributing trinkets started in the 1870s or 1880s, several hundred years after French settlers introduced the celebration to Louisiana in the 1600s. Party organizers—known locally as “krewes”—handed out baubles and other shiny objects to revelers to help commemorate the occasion. Some of them threw chocolate-covered almonds. They were joined by more mischievous attendees, who threw dirt or flour on people in an effort to stir up a little bit of trouble.
Why beads? Tiny tokens that represent wealth, health, and other prosperity have been a part of human history for centuries. In Egypt, tokens were handed out in the hopes they would guarantee a happy afterlife; the abacus, or bead-based system of accounting, used trinkets to perform calculations; pagan pre-winter rituals had people throwing grains into fields hoping to appease gods that would nourish their crops.
Humans, argues archaeologist Laurie Wilkie, display “bead lust,” or a penchant for shiny objects. It’s one possible reason why Mardi Gras attracts so many people with their arms in the air, elated to receive a gift of cheap, sweatshop-made plastic.
LSU biologist makes biodegradable Mardi Gras beads that could make parades more green
The early beads were made of glass before more efficient production methods overseas led to an influx of plastic beads in the 1960s. Unlike some of the more organic predecessors, these beads have come under criticism for being a source of health problems and pollution. Made from petroleum, they often harbor lead that seeps into the soil and rubs off on hands. (One estimate puts the lead deposit after a Mardi Gras celebration at 4000 pounds.) In 2017, New Orleans paid $7 million in clean-up costs to remove discarded beads from drain basins. This year, they’ve installed gutter guards to prevent the necklaces from getting into the system in the first place.
Environmental hazards aside, the beads of Mardi Gras have become as much a holiday staple as seasonal stockings or Thanksgiving turkeys. But the passion and desperate need for them is only temporary; last year, 46 tons of the beads were left in the gutters and drains. And no bacchanal should leave that much bad juju behind.
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If coaching world-class snowboarders doesn’t work out for Finnish snowboarding coach Antti Koskinen, he already has a start on a fallback career: professional knitter.
During slopestyle qualifying rounds at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang over the weekend, Koskinen was spotted at the top of the run clutching yarn and a pair of needles, even shedding his gloves in the frigid temps to get a better grip.
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The Finnish coach is KNITTING at the top of the slopestyle course. Someone please find out what this man is making!!!#PyongChang2018 #snowboard pic.twitter.com/Nr87YBJ2lf
Mardi Gras comes to Women and Children’s hospital
Though eagle-eyed viewers turned to social media to delight in the coach’s unusual pastime, it’s not the first time Koskinen has channeled his Olympic nerves into knitting needles. He worked on a scarf while advising snowboarders at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, explaining that it helped lighten the mood for his nerve-wracked athletes just before a competition. Other athletes joined in with the intention of passing the pieces to their 2016 Summer Games counterparts.
This year, Koskinen’s craftiness has not only returned—it now serves a purpose beyond helping athletes keep their chill on the slopes.
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We are #knitting again 😀 In Sochi we made a huge scarf, this time we are knitting a blanket for our presidential couple’s newborn son. 💙🇫🇮#olympicteamfi #knittingteamfi #pyeongchang2018 #olympics #olympialaiset #pyeongchangfi pic.twitter.com/mwKLgh1h2j
So far, Koskinen and Team Finland haven’t been able to spin wool into gold just yet, though they have claimed a couple of bronze medals. But that’s OK—they’re still a close-knit team.