Most visitors to New Orleans during Carnival stay in or near the French Quarter, make their way to Canal Street to watch the parades go by, catch some throws, have some drinks, raise their eyes at some unexpected (or expected) debauchery and call it a day. But if visitors head home after this kind of trip thinking they have really “done” Mardi Gras, then they are mistaken. Because when you watch a parade, you are a passive spectator. I feel that in order to fully participate in Carnival, you need to be active. You need to do your part to create the spectacle. You need to mask. This one aspect of Carnival is available to anyone, although very few visitors take advantage of it. And the best way to participate in masking on Mardi Gras morning is to seek out and join the Society of St. Anne’s walking parade.
At the core of Carnival is the idea that things are turned upside down for a day. Anyone can be whoever (or whatever) they want to be with the aid of a mask or costume. Revelers who walk in St. Anne take this possibility to extremes, crafting elaborate costumes, some of which they work on all year long. I have walked in the parade for ten years now and each year, half of the fun is the time I spend planning and making my costume. The rest of the pleasure comes on Mardi Gras day, as I walk though the streets of the Bywater, Marigny and French Quarter, admiring the work of my fellow paraders, visiting with friends and doing my part to create Carnival, my favorite holiday in my favorite city. Out of town friends who have joined me in St. Anne always remark that they have never participated in anything quite like it, both in its creativity and beauty.
But even if you have just arrived in New Orleans and didn’t bring much in the way of “costume” with you, have no fear. There are several shops in the French Quarter which sell masks, fanciful hats, wigs and sparkly accessories. The key is to adorn yourself with something out of your normal trappings. Wear something that makes you feel different and you will embody what Carnival means. Then head into the Marigny. St. Anne doesn’t follow a set parade schedule or route, but you can usually catch the parade around Mimi’s around 10 a.m. or at the R Bar a little later. You don’t need to sign up to walk. Just show up in some kind of costume. If you aren’t able to join in, then be sure to catch the parade as it winds its way down Royal Street through the French Quarter. Because seeing the floats is only a small part of the holiday. My favorite part of Carnival is the one each of us makes ourselves.