As we waited, we watched other people in the crowd and the vendors that were taking their trolleys of goods up and down the street. You could buy feather boas, a variety of silly hats, assorted noise makers and light up wands, as well as bead necklaces. It seemed a bit strange to buy a necklace when you were about have a load thrown at you, but I suppose if you wanted to be certain of having some special beads then you might resort to buying them.
We got chatting to a few of the people around us, who were mostly local, and they loved the fact that it was our first Mardi Gras. They also loved our accents. In fact most people here do seem to be very enthusiastic about hearing an English accent; on a number of occasions people would stop us in the street or the shop just to say that they liked our accents when they heard us speaking to each other. There is a huge and loyal Downton Abbey following too. When I put on my 'posh' voice for her, the woman we were talking to at the parade actually squealed with excitement!
But back to the parades. Parading has its roots back in European celebrations, but the first parades in North America actually took place in nearby Mobile Alabama, back in 1703. Over the next years, the parades were run by a secret society called Masque de la Mobile, and later by the Boeuf Gras Society.
New Orleans was founded in 1718, but it took until the 1730-40s before it started holding its own Mardi Gras celebrations, in the form of society balls, which still take place as part of the festivities today. The first records of a carnival do not appear until 1781, but by the 1830s parading was well established. These processions of masked people on horseback and in carriages had their path lit by men carrying flambeaux, flaming gas torches, a tradition which some or the night parades continue today, even though more conventional lighting does the main job.
The groups that do today's parades are known as Krewes. The first, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was established back in 1856. It was this Krewe that initiated parading with decorated floats, but hailing from Mobile, they followed the earlier tradition of their parades and remained completely anonymous, adding an air of mystery to the procession.
Comus continued to ride until 1991, when an order was passed that required all those parading to show that they did not discriminate against people on ground of race, gender, sexuality, age etc. Along with a couple of other Krewes not wanting to lose their anonymity - or perhaps not wanting to be forced to comply - they opted to stop parading, and even though the rules have been lifted, they have not returned; they do still have their Mardi Gras ball though, and invitations are highly prized. And though Rex may be the King of the Carnival (more about them later) it is Rex that visits the 'royalty' of Comus at their party, not the other way around.
The tradition of the throws - the handing out of gifts from the floats - seems to have been started by the second Krewe back in 1870. Today of course these throws are a huge part of the parades; perhaps too much so, as some pele seemed to forget completely about the fabulous floats, and were uninterested in the simple fun of catching the beads, concentrating solely on getting the 'better' gifts.
The parades go on for two weeks culminating in the parades of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) or Shrove Tuesday as we know it in the UK. This year though, New Orleans also hosted the Superbowl, so they did the first week of parades earlier and took a a break for Superbowl, then continued with the second week as normal.
We were seeing three parades on the Thursday, which were the Krewes of Babylon, Chaos and Muses.
Babylon are one of the older Krewes, having started parading in 1939. They are quite traditional and probably quite a good first parade as you see the importance given to the Krewe 'royalty' and the Knights ride on horseback.
Chaos are a more recent Krewe, only riding since 2000. They are perhaps a bit more relaxed about the traditions and inject a bit more humour and light heartedness into the affair.
The third one today was Muses, another newcomer from 2000, but this time an all female Krewe. Many of the Krewes have now taken to having a celebrity on their float either as their royalty or a special guest. The honorary Muse for this year was Ruby Bridges, who was the first African American child to go to an all white elementary school in the southern States.
As it turned out Muses was probably one of my favourite parades - and not just because it was themed around shoes! The all female Krewe is known for having fabulous themed floats, often with a bit of a political dig or two thrown in, and certainly we thought the floats were really beautiful. I also rather liked the huge walking light up shoes and butterflies that they had, though I didn't envy the poor people who had to carry and control them.
Muses had also made a real effort with their throws, which were varied and generally more interesting than most of the Krewes'. But most importantly they seemed to be genuinely interested and enjoying it themselves, unlike a few of the Krewes that seemed a little jaded.
We were towards the end of the parade, so I am sure that they must all be quite tired by this stage, but they spend so much money on their floats outfits and throws that you would hope that they enjoy it all the way through. And of course if they are cheerful and having fun then that filters through to the crowd and makes for a better overall experience. Maybe it was just that this was our first day of parades, but I don't think so; I would certainly recommend Muses as one of the best parades to see if you go to Mardi Gras.
As for their throws, sadly, despite the best efforts of one of the women next to me, I didn't manage to get one of the prized hand decorated shoes. On hearing it was our first Mardi Gras she, and another guy nearby, both took it upon themselves to 'encourage' me to get myself noticed and get the goodies.
At one point she literally grabbed my arm and pulled me to run alongside the floats, yelling that it was my first Mardi Gras; in fairness that nearly worked as the woman did look for a decorated shoe to give me but she had none left. But I did get quite a lot of other things including one whole bulk package of goodies. From this parade alone I came away with:
1 logo shopping bag
10 magnetic wipeable note boards with pen and notepad
2 plastic cups
4 bead bracelets with eighteen small silver shoes on
3 keychain torches with muse logo in light
2 light up rings
1 can cosy
2 sets of shoelaces
1 American football toy
1 plastic water pouch with carabiner
1 plush toy
3 light up flashing hair braids
1 purple shoe medallion on purple bead necklace
10 bead necklaces with shoes on6 special necklaces with things that light up on them
14 of various type and coloured Muses logo bead necklaces
5 basic coloured bead necklaces.
Add to that around thirty necklaces, some shopping bags, cups, doubloons and other goodies from the two earlier parades, and as you can imagine, we were pretty weighed down on our way back that evening.