A Mardi Gras Like No Other Seeks to Bring New Orleans Together—From a Distance
The carnival season holds the possibility for renewal during the Covid-19 pandemic
The New Orleans parade known as the Krewe of Jeanne d’Arc rolls every year on January 6th—Joan of Arc’s birthday, and also the day that the Carnival season begins. The small walking parade usually winds through a crowded, glittering French Quarter. Marchers playact Joan’s biography, adorned in medieval attire with beautifully handcrafted props symbolizing her journey to sainthood. It’s a lively and loving celebration of female heroism, spiritual fortitude in the face of ruthless authority, and the city’s French history.
Most years, the parade is a fun evening out. This year, it was over in about 10 minutes. Back in November, the city of New Orleans canceled Carnival parades for 2021. So, like many Carnival organizations, the Krewe of Jeanne d’Arc came up with a workaround. In an inverted parade experience, spectators in cars were the ones who rolled through a suburban park, peering at elaborate stationary tableaux along the “route.” The artistry was alive in the plywood ramparts of Orléans; Joan-at-the-pyre shimmied over fluttery flames as a brass band played nearby; her army’s hobby horses, usually ridden to comedic effect, were lined up along a guardrail, like toys in a shop.
The krewe’s effort and enthusiasm honored the start of the season. But the drive-thru experience was also quick and frictionless, leaving me wistful for the real thing.
I’ve lived in New Orleans for pretty much my whole life and have roughly four dozen Carnivals under my belt, which feels absurd to write. Carnival is a complicated phenomenon, rooted deep in the spirit of the city but also kaleidoscopic, existing in as many forms as there are revelers and creating itself anew each year. While marketed year-round to fuel tourism, it’s also more narrowly celebrated as a wild, festive release meant to expend worldly desire before Ash Wednesday, which starts the Christian Lenten period of deprivation and austerity before Easter. Carnival parades, which dominate New Orleans for the two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, are visceral and snag on the life of the city. They slow down for tight turns, or stop for a low hanging power line, then speed up to close the gaps between floats; they wobble under highway overpasses to the thunderous echoes of marching bands.
Beloved as parades are, I could not get anyone to come with me to the Jeanne d’Arc tableaux this year. The steeply spiking pandemic had tamped down my kids’ excitement about Mardi Gras. That first day of Carnival, a.k.a. the Feast of the Epiphany, was also the same day that the Capitol riots violently broke open their world. (Yes, social media produced Mardi Gras/Capitol invasion mash-up memes with alacrity.) For my children, attending a non-parade would just be another reminder of how sideways their lives had slid.
Kicking off Carnival 2021 at the peak of the pandemic and on such a traumatic day for the country has made it difficult to access the season’s carefree, celebratory spirit. But here we are, celebrating a Carnival shaped by 2020, which means a more home-centered, socially distanced, tech-embracing, innovative and existentially contemplative season. In a city so bound to its past, I wonder how Carnival 2021 might accelerate the transformation of an evolving tradition? And will this break from the usual all-consuming Carnival allow us a fresh look at what we value in it?
Some trace Carnival’s origins back to ancient pagan Roman festivals like the Saturnalia, in which all civic business shut down for city-wide parties, citizens shed their togas for wild outfits, and social hierarchies were upended, often with the enslaved being served by their masters at the heads of tables. Over time, European Catholics, including the French and Spanish who colonized Louisiana, absorbed elements of these festivals into their religious calendars, an acknowledgement of the existence and potency of chaos, and of a distinct human need for individual freedom. Revelers rejected authority and embraced the possibility of transformation. Often, a kind of communal transcendence was achieved, as well as millennia of hangovers.
Carnival mythology reaches back centuries on Louisiana soil. On Fat Tuesday 1699, French Canadian-born explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, having finally located the mouth of the Mississippi River, dragged his longboats to the brambly shore of the soon-to-be colony of La Louisiane. He remembered that on that date in France, in the royal courts and public squares, people were celebrating, and so he christened the spot Pointe du Mardi Gras. Ambition, exploitation, and Carnival were instantly joined on that riverbank.
In the centuries since, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has metabolized American racial and class attitudes, consumption, globalism. In the 18th century, downtown Creole Catholics observed Mardi Gras in the European tradition, with elaborate balls and ribald costumed street parties that scandalously mixed classes, sexes and races. Eventually, violence and mayhem, attributed to port riffraff and “newcomers,” also became a hallmark of the celebration.
Modern Mardi Gras, consisting of parades and “royal” balls, emerged in 1857 when moneyed uptown Anglo Protestants sought to rehabilitate Carnival, which they felt had become too wild and debased. They redirected public focus from the unruly street behavior toward the refined spectacle and pageantry of a parade. The made-up, archaic spelling of “krewe” gave their new organization the illusion of a courtly Anglo history. Instead of upending social structures, the longtime function of Carnivals, this vision of Carnival reinforced them, coronating already socially elite whites. Even then, it was conceived as a business venture, as a way to promote the city to tourists.
Over the years, the elitist parade model became democratized. Groups who were not welcome in the old line Anglo krewes formed their own, and spread parading to neighborhoods across the city, giving rise to middle and working class krewes, all female krewes, gay krewes. The most famous example is the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, formed in 1909 by the Black Community, a self-described “everyman club” with a membership ranging from laborers to politicians.
In the late 20th century, when the bottom dropped out of the oil market, the city’s reliance on tourism ramped up and Mardi Gras became its gaudy centerpiece. Contemporary Carnival’s economic impact on the region is estimated by some to be about a billion dollars a year. But this legacy of over-tourism has exacerbated persistent racial inequities in wages, housing, and social mobility in New Orleans, so when COVID arrived and tourism evaporated, the city suffered further still, reporting the highest number of homeowners in danger of losing their homes in any major city in the country. Canceling parades, while a public health necessity, compounded the economic damage for float artists, ball venues, caterers, bars, restaurants, and hotels along the parade route.
So we scramble to fill the void. A variety of organizations have issued an earnest, collective call to stay home, and learn about the history and cultural significance of Mardi Gras through online Carnival educational and promotional programming. There are virtual costume contests, and virtual parades with apps and virtual throws (beads and plastic trinkets tossed from floats) for those craving the grabby consumer parade experience. COVID-safe Carnival events have fanned out across the city. The Krewe of Red Beans has been raising money to hire out-of-work artists to transform homes into elaborate stationary floats. One parade deconstructed itself into art installations to be admired at locations throughout downtown. At City Park, the sold-out Floats in the Oaks brings together parked iconic floats from dozens of krewes, a “once in a lifetime” gathering to be admired at your leisure, without jostling crowds and the distractions of flying beads and sloshing beers.
Some see Carnival 2021 as an opportunity to detach the celebration from the excess and waste associated with parades. Threatened by flooding and sea-level rise from climate change, we still host an annual event that lavishly trashes our city. Beads and plastic throws arrive from China by the containerful, tons of which parade goers never catch, ending up in landfills, gutters and waterways. (Infamously, in 2018, 46 tons of beads were pulled out of the sewer along just a five-block length of the main parade route.) This year, environmental groups and grassroots organizations dedicated to a greener Carnival are hoping that this pause might open up space for conversation. One group received a $500,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to encourage the inclusion of more locally made and sustainable throws.
Though a wholesale change in longstanding public appetites is unlikely (people love beads! They’re fun to catch!), there has been a significant shift in 21st-century Carnival. In recent years, more and more New Orleanians have been creating the spectacle themselves, not just consuming it curbside at parades behind police barricades. Along with an increased interest in costuming, revelers have been joining and creating bawdily themed dance troupes like the Pussyfooters or the Camel Toe Lady Steppers and attaching themselves to loosely organized but spectacular walking parades like the Krewe of St. Ann.
While maybe new to some, this grassroots tradition has found expression among Black New Orleanians since at least the 19th century. The glorious crosstown tribes of Mardi Gras Indians, the tough satin attitude of the Baby Dolls, and the pre-dawn memento mori of the North Side Skull and Bone Gang all represent a distillation of artistry and community, tradition and joy that produces pure Carnival ethos. This year many Mardi Gras Indians, who spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars creating their museum-worthy hand-beaded and feather-crowned suits, are opting out because the toll of the coronavirus on their community has been so profound.
Though it’s been difficult to conjure the usual enthusiasm, celebrating Carnival, safely, in whatever modified form, seems more necessary than ever. “THE STREETS WILL RISE UP,” a friend texted after the city announced the parade cancelations, with an almost primal excitement about a Carnival liberated from civic organization. One of the great marvels of Carnivals the world over is how public spaces are spontaneously transformed into prismatic, communal expressions of joy and freedom. I like to think this desire for creative connection reflects Carnival’s ancient purposes of ritual and release—a tangible response to the stressors of contemporary life, to the screws of digital platforms tightening into our souls, to living within systems over which we have diminishing control.
In these last weeks of Carnival, the streets have risen up, though maybe not in the way my friend intended. The Krewe of House Floats phenomenon has transformed them with an unprecedented blossoming of domestic creativity. It’s been inspiring to see how quickly the idea ignited across the city and what the citizenry can accomplish with cardboard and spray paint, foil fringe and string lights. Like parades, whole blocks and neighborhoods are coordinating themes, from satirical to historical. Houses range from modest and sweet to well-funded and fabulous, like the official Krewe of Muses manse-float (full disclosure, designed by my sister). Stumbling upon these surprises of color and light and humor as they proliferate across town has become the unexpected joy of the season, a fresh reminder of the work, the social connection and imagination that propel it.
We don’t know what shape Mardi Gras day will take this year, but we do know it will be unlike any other in New Orleans history. Our mayor invited tourists to Carnival, and then chided them for doing what Mardi Gras visitors often do. For the last two weekends social media has been roiling with footage of a packed Bourbon Street and the flaunting of local COVID gathering restrictions. In order to avoid a repeat of 2020’s unwitting superspreader Carnival, the mayor ordered the city-wide closure of all bars from Friday to Ash Wednesday, along with checkpoints around the French Quarter and the shutting down of other traditional Mardi Gras gathering places. The hope is that the revelers will stay closer to home, enjoy the celebratory endeavors of their neighborhoods, toast from porches. Luckily, mask wearing and being outdoors are already part of the tradition. Social distancing, not so much. My younger son is planning a “plague doctor” costume—complete with six-foot-long staff—to keep congregating revelers on our block separated.
Over the last year, the pandemic has intensified the role of intentionality and contingency in our lives, something Carnival does in its own chaotic and unpredictable way. Schools are already worrying about a post-Carnival spike that could prolong the purgatory of virtual learning, and some businesses and hospitality workers are already feeling the pain of the new restrictions. But Carnival 2021 also holds the possibility for renewal. Maybe some of its gifts will thrive and carry forward: the festive house floats, the community-mindedness, the attention to our environment. The start of this year’s Carnival might have been marked by the destructive energy of the crowd at the Capitol. Maybe it can be redeemed by the generative energy of a masked and distanced and gorgeous community, creating a singular moment of celebration together.
Anne Gisleson is the author of The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving and Reading. She teaches creative writing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.