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Personal intersections with history are inspiring, and a rich past is never more alive than when you're celebrating it in the present through observance and obedience to tradition.

You've probably heard lots about Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Few locales harbor a more treasured legacy of largesse than the Crescent City and its famed Carnival season, which culminated on Tuesday.

Anything so long-standing--the pre-Lent feasting accompanied explorer Pierre d'Iberville in 1699, and the first parade rolled in 1857--is sure to elicit a cacophony of anecdotes, myths and legends.

All I knew of Mardi Gras was what I had heard, until last weekend.

I stand by the saying, "if you're lucky enough to be Irish, you're lucky enough," and my good fortune got multiplied on Sunday when I was a guest rider on a float in a NOLA Mardi Gras parade.

In preparation, I read accounts from other past riders' chronicles. One writer called it a "deliriously fun" time; a common refrain characterized it as a "rock star experience."

It was, beyond a doubt, one of the most exhilarating things I have ever done. And while I have been among the spectators at large events, I now know what it feels (and sounds) like to be in front of a screaming throng of thousands. My host had promised an unforgettable, indescribable, mesmerizing event, and he was right on all counts.

But it was also an amazing educational experience. Amazing because of the sheer logistics and statistics. Educational because I had a lot to unlearn.

For starters, the parades are family friendly and have nothing to do with the French Quarter and its associated debauchery. The last time a float rolled anywhere near Bourbon Street was nearly a half-century ago.

And flashing for beads? That's a fable along the parade routes, which often involve mansion-lined streets and are densely packed with G-rated crowds of every age, lounging in lawn chairs or standing on ladders or cheering from portable bleachers.

Non-Catholics may not be familiar with the holiday's religious roots. Carnival begins on the 12th day of Christmas, (Epiphany) Jan. 6, and ends on Shrove Tuesday ("Fat Tuesday") before Ash Wednesday. It's the feast before the fast of Lent begins.

The "krewes" are social organizations that sponsor the parades, and some also throw elaborate balls. Our invitation to the Bacchus Rendezvous ball commanded floor-length gowns for ladies and black tie or military dress for men (riders wore their costumes).

Walking into the convention center bay where the floats were lined up before the parade was breathtaking. It required a mental retooling of the word "float," since I had grown up watching local homecoming or Christmas parades.

The Krewe of Bacchus parade is one of NOLA's biggest, and the colossal scale also applies to its floats. All told there were some 35 floats in the lineup, eight of which are signature floats which don't change with the annual theme.

Some of the floats were four trailers long, literally hundreds of feet, and most were also built to accommodate two levels of riders. All were incredibly and extravagantly well-decorated, with interior bins and hooks to hold all the "throws" riders will be hurling.

Each rider is required by law to be masked, and also must be tethered with a harness worn under the costume. The mandatory masking allows celebrities to sometimes sneak aboard floats and ride unrecognized.

As eye-popping as all the marvelous visuals are, Mardi Gras by the numbers is more mind-boggling.

There were 65 parades in roughly 18 days. Each parade includes on average 20 to 30 floats, and frequently a like number of marching bands. More than 600 bands participated in this year's parades.

Each float carries at least a couple dozen riders, and more on the larger ones. It's not uncommon for any single parade to feature 1,000 riders. The super-krewes Endymion and Nyx both have more than 3,000 riders.

Each rider is costumed and masked, and will likely throw from 500 to 1,000 or more beads, toys, doubloons, stuffed animals and other themed swag during the three- to four-hour ride.

Parade routes vary, and city police must block streets along the route; the sanitation department deploys 850 workers daily to quickly clean up the myriad debris left behind each parade. Each year the city collects--and reports--the total trash toll, which averages around 1,000 tons.

Parade-watchers number in the hundreds of thousands; all told some 1.4 million people descend on NOLA for Mardi Gras season. They all stay in hotels and eat in restaurants and buy tri-colored king cakes, shirts, souvenirs and trinkets.

The total economic impact Mardi Gras delivers to the city of 393,000 is more than $1 billion.

My day spent in a Bacchus costume was priceless. Making eye contact and throwing a lighted necklace to a gleefully grateful stranger you will never meet again is a goosebump moment. I had hours of them.

One of my most captivating memories is a pretty broad one: It's how so many, many people were all having so much fun.

And none more than me.

Bon temps, indeed, and they rolled well.


Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

Editorial on 03/08/2019

Print Headline: DANA D. KELLEY: Memory Gras


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  • mrcharles
    March 8, 2019 at 11:24 a.m.

    It does not bother me one bit to say mr. Kelley appears to have had one good time, and that is a good thing for a fellow human being. Clearly he expressed his joy.

    perhaps the many babptis I know will change their mind about that catholic thing down there, as they tell me they are not really christians and things associated with their ideas are troublesome.

  • 4boo
    March 8, 2019 at 4:39 p.m.

    Wonderful column. Thank you, Mr. Kelley. I have not been to this since the early 70's. It sounds much much better now. May have to go watch these parades!!!
    The statistics are incredible.