Revelers march in Societé de Saint Anne on Mardi Gras Day — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
Contrary to popular opinion, Mardi Gras isn’t one day. Locals in New Orleans know that this citywide party officially begins on Twelfth Night, or January 6, with some 60 parades in neighborhoods all around town leading up to Mardi Gras Day on Fat Tuesday – the day before Lent commences according to the Advent calendar.
And forget the drunken, flashing revelry on Bourbon Street; that’s for tourists. The real Mardi Gras is a family affair marked by festive parades organized by krewes, the social clubs that work all year on themes, floats and costumes.
The trinity of super krewes – Rex, Endymion and Bacchus – are at the top of the viewing list, known for their intricate floats, high-tech wizardry and outrageous costumes and themes.
The biggest parades are also notable for their celebrity kings and queens, with the likes of Kid Rock, Britney Spears and John C. Reilly holding court as royalty for a day. Several all-female krewes, including Muses and Nyx, have achieved close to super krewe status, each rolling with more than 30 elaborately themed floats.
But beyond the mega carnival players, there are smaller, quirky parades that are must-sees for their authentic New Orleans verve and vision.
After Joan of Arc rides through the Quarter on Twelfth Night, the big parade season kicks off with the always irreverent Krewe du Vieux. Taking place on January 23, it's a satirical march through the Marigny of decorated, hand or mule-drawn floats dripping with double entrendre or in-your-face sassiness.
For sheer underdog charm on January 30, there's the wonderful ‘tit Rəx – strolling artsy types who fashion shoebox-sized mini floats that are hand-pulled through the St. Roch neighborhood into the Marigny. The parade’s name comes from the Cajun abbreviation of petite, used before the name of a younger of two people.
The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus is a sci-fi themed parade, on January 31, that steps off in the 9th ward and travels through the Marigny. Even if you're not a fan of the genre, you'll love the self-propelled float contraptions built onto bicycles, homemade trailers and shopping carts.
Then there's the parade that draws throngs of costumed revelers into the Marigny, many congregating around the R Bar on Mardi Gras morning. The brilliantly costumed march of Societé de Saint Anne on Mardi Gras Day is an array of nutty creatives that collect marchers from Bywater into the French Quarter, stopping at bars for celebrating along the way.
The dates for all parades change from year to year, but here's one good place to get updated info.