The more Mardi Gras changes, the more it stays the same

A unique series of changes have threatened 2013 Mardi Gras. But nothing stops New Orleans from being its resilient self. Photo: Krewe of Nyx/Facebook

LOUISIANA, February 12, 2013—The Carnival season that culminates in Mardi Gras is so ingrained in New Orleans culture that its customs may seem impenetrable to outsiders. Some of the traditions, such as the lavish balls, the procession of floats, and the Mardi Gras Indians, have been around since 1857. But even the most entrenched traditions face unique challenges, and 2013 has presented its fair share. With each change, however, the resilient locals have pushed back to reinforce the status quo.   

The most prominent obstacle contending with a successful 2013 Carnival was the Super Bowl. To throw a party for everyone else, New Orleans had to postpone the party it throws for itself: The civic attention associated with the game (not to mention the police force needed) forced eleven parades to reschedule. Bracketing the game with parades threatened to disturb the momentum of the festivities, and, to cause more headaches, Mardi Gras World, the downtown facility where many floats are built and stored, was rented out for events the whole week.

The re-routing of New Orleans parades produced an interesting side effect, however, since it only lent more attention to the parades that did roll that weekend in the surrounding areas of Metairie, the Westbank, and New Orleans East. In what has to be a first, downtown hotels even offered to shuttle visitors out of the metropolitan area so that they could take advantage of the suburbs’ parades.

Now that the Mid-City and Uptown krewes have resumed, last weekend’s marching respite feels like a distant memory. It’s hard to imagine the Super Bowl as a diverting side dish for anything, but many New Orleanians saw it as a nap break. (Considering the third quarter power outage, that might not be a metaphor.) In fact, Thursday’s Muses parade seemed to have a more raucous crowd than ever. It felt as if no one had skipped a beat, and this was exactly how the celebration was supposed to go all along.

Speaking of Muses, the aptly-named all-female krewe is facing competition. As of last year the fan-favorite had become so popular that it stopped taking names for its membership waiting list. The Krewe of Nyx, a new, just as aptly-named group, sprouted up as an alternative. Upstart parades are nothing new, but upstart parades that boast over 900 riders in their second year are. That membership automatically gives Nyx the stature—if not the reputation—of its predecessor. In presenting itself as a rival to Muses, the Krewe of Nyx became another Muses. The group’s website now reads, “The Krewe of Nyx is no longer accepting applications for membership and our waiting list is currently closed.” It’s only a matter of time before New Orleans turns new things into things that feel as if they have always existed.

Many traditions, especially the dangerous ones, refuse to die. Not everything about the season is harmonious, as evidenced by a Bourbon Street shooting that wounded four people on Saturday. Sometimes the mixture of crowds, alcohol, and excitement is more than law enforcement can handle, even with the number of officers working overtime.

The N.O.P.D. promises every year to renew its dedication to safety and efficiency, and this year was no different. To secure spots for Saturday’s Endymion parade, especially on prime streets such as Orleans Avenue or St. Charles, families set up ladders, taped off territory, pitched a tent, or spray-painted a square of grass. This is, of course, against the law—the ladders in particular pose a problem. Besides obstructing the view of anyone behind them, ladders, usually topped by children, can fall when a crowd surges forward; so the police needs to keep them at a safe distance from the street.

No matter how strongly the warnings are stressed though, paradegoers still stake their claim, knowing that the cops are wrestling with the logistics of the most intimidating crowd control exercise in America. They definitely don’t have time to write citations for a guy tying caution tape around stakes in the dirt. So as early as Friday morning, the streetcars couldn’t run because of all the people camped out in the same places where they have always set up shop. That resistance to change may be frustrating at times, but it’s an impulse that powers the city and keeps alive an event that, logically, should never work but always does. 

The chance of rain for Mardi Gras Day has hovered around 60% for the past few days, and many locals made sure to attend the weekend’s parades just in case they were the last chance to party. But something tells me to expect ponchos instead of cancellations. Something tells me New Orleanians will figure it out. No matter how much change threatens, no matter how much it seems as if the whole celebration might fall apart each year, every element comes together for Fat Tuesday.


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Christopher Bowes

Christopher Bowes is a teacher in New Orleans, and he writes about the worlds of film, TV, and music. He has a bachelor’s degree from the Louisiana Scholars’ College and a master’s from the University of Pennsylvania. He also writes for A House of Lies and is preparing a book of short stories.


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