New Orleans is a fascinating city, full of traditions and rituals that date back 300 years. Most people think of the city as the scene of spectacles and parades that mark Fat Tuesday, commonly known as Mardi Gras. They picture a day or two of intense partying that ends the next day when the Lenten period of abstinence kicks in.
It was only when we started visiting New Orleans weeks before Fat Tuesday that we discovered that Mardi Gras is not a day, a week or a month before the start of Lent but kicks off with the Feast of the Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, on January 6. This year, 2019, Mardi Gras comes later than usual, March 5, which means celebrants will parade, sing, dance and wear costumes for a full two months.
The Epiphany marks the visit of the Three Kings, the Magi, to Jesus Christ’s humble stable where he was born. New Orleans popular culture honors the religious aspect of the day by eating an incredibly rich King Cake with the figure of a baby buried inside.
This year, a local café, the Bywater Bakery, held a party to mark the beginning of the Mardi Gras season and to offer a half dozen varieties of King Cake. Outside in the street, a small group of Mardi Gras Indians dressed in elaborate feather costumes came by to sing a spiritual song. The Mardi Gras Indians tribes draw their members from New Orleans’ African-American neighborhoods and honor the Native Americans who helped them escape from slavery. Each year they compete with each other for the most elaborate costume and style.
Minutes later, Grammy-award-winning R&B pianist Jon Cleary banged out some New Orleans tunes to celebrate the day.
After taking a rest from the Bywater party, we headed down to the French Quarter where a magnificent parade honoring the Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc, was getting ready to march. The choreographed story of the teenager martyr unfolded before us, told by costumed marchers who brought to life her courage and martyrdom in the 15th-century.
First, however, the paraders reminded the crowd that they were in New Orleans, Louisiana, not France, by chanting Who Dat? the New Orleans Saints football team’s rallying cry then playing its signature song.
The medieval revelers followed, carrying a cake marking the 607th anniversary of Joan of Arc’s birth.
Joan paraded by on a horse.
Followed by priests and commoners.
The marchers portrayed how, after her victory on the battlefield in 1429, Joan of Arc was tried and condemned.
Found guilty, at age 19 Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
Declared a martyr, then a saint, Joan of Arc walked with angels at the end.
All this took place on the first day of the Mardi Gras season. Stick around to find out what other festivities the clever residents of New Orleans have in store.
(All photos and videos by Nancy Peckenham.)