I recently wrote a guest blog posting on ChefJohnBesh.com on Mardi Gras traditions. My very favorite one is the extremely New Orleanian and rarely fully understood tradition of marching with the Krewe of St. Anne on Mardi Gras Day. Despite having participated a half dozen times, writing it turned out to be a bit harder than I originally thought. Two years ago, my sisters and I bid our mother farewell in the ceremony that follows St. Anne’s procession through the French Quarter. The “ceremony,” and I mean that as in tradition, was at the same time beautiful, heart breaking, healing and cathartic. When I started to write about this, however, I found that I wanted to share the tradition more than I wanted to relive my mother’s passing. This is not because I want to avoid thinking about the loss of my mom, but because I did not want the beauty of the story to get caught up in my personal loss. Anyway, I’ve posted it in its entirety below. I will tell you my story another time. The link to Chef Besh’s website is here as well. Happy Mardi Gras. I’ll be celebrating for you!
Saying Goodbye in The Big Easy
It’s Tuesday morning and in the French Quarter tourists are beginning to stir. In a few hours, the newbies will head to Café du Monde (rookie error – it’s going to be packed!), and the more experienced revelers will make their way to Camilla Grill, or Stanley, for eggs and bacon. Throughout New Orleans, people from 17 to 70 are shaking off hangovers and readying themselves for a long day.
In other parts of the city, however, families and friends, turned in early on Monday night. This Tuesday is no day to wake up late. No day to wake up with a hangover.
Alarms go off at 6am. Snooze button is ignored. Hot glue guns are plugged in. Fresh smoothies are made. Weather is confirmed. Tights. Extra moisturizer. Glitter. Facepaint. Wigs. Tuille. Lace.
It’s Mardi Gras Day.
Along with King Cake, floats, Bourbon Street, plastic babies, beads, The Wild Magnolias, and bloody marys, there is a tradition that, for some, embodies the real spirit of Mardi Gras: The Krewe of St. Anne.
The Krewe of St. Anne, also known as The Société of Sainte Anne, or just St. Anne, was founded in 1969 by Henri Shindler, Jon Newlin and Paul Poche as a bit of a throwback to the old walking krewes that snaked through the French Quarter during Mardi Gras. These krewes were driven out of the Quarter and soon after, the large tractor pulled and electrified floats that now creep along the streets of uptown, mid city and through the suburbs, were created. As the man who would go on to design the floats for the now absent Comus and Momus, and the king of carnival, Rex, Schindler’s heart belonged to the purest form of Mardi Gras traditions and thus St Anne was born.
Today her official starting point depends on who initiated you. Were you initiated at Bud Rips or at a friend’s house in The Marigny. The R Bar on Royal, or maybe The Golden Lantern if you were too lazy to leave the FQ? It doesn’t really matter. The only requirement to walk is that you know of it. And you must abide by the number one rule: No observers, just participants.
St Anne marchers (strollers, meanderers, walkers, rollers, roller skaters…) don the most elaborate costumes of the season; and follow the three golden rules to costuming – more is more, you must be able to drink (hence the popularity of half-faced masks), and though extravagantly designed, your costume must allow you the ease to relieve you of it … to go relieve yourself. A year’s worth of planning, sewing, collecting, and collaborating are poured into a thing of beauty that may only be worn for four hours before being disassembled with parts repurposed for the following year. Bourbon Street may be where the college kids hang out, Mid-City might be appropriate for families, and Uptown might be home to Mardi Gras royalty, but for the creative types The Marigny’s St. Anne is where anything (or nothing) goes.
At 8am on Mardi Gras day, the St. Anne participants begin the day by waiting for the Storyville Stompers to show up at their chosen location. They then follow the band from The Marigny up Royal Street and through the French Quarter to meet, and merge with, Rex on the corner of Royal and Canal. This tradition began so that Henri (the Rex designer) could get a full view of his creations in action. Though Henri no longer parades with St. Anne the tradition to meet Rex on Canal Street continues to this day.
Once Rex’s last float passes people go one of three ways. For some the reveling and drinking will continue in the French Quarter, for some the party will have ended and they will head home, but for a core of the Krewe of St Anne this is just the beginning. This group of people will continue the journey back through the French Quarter to Jackson Square where they will cross Decatur Street, climb the steps up to the Moonwalk that runs alongside the Mississippi River and descend the steps that go down and disappear into the river. If you are among the bystanders at Jackson Square when this happens you’ll see a torrent of colorful fabrics and the St. Anne “Crab nets” raised high in the air and you’ll hear the Storyville Stompers switch from New Orleans jazz ballads to a haunting version of A Closer Walk With Thee … and that’s when the magic begins.
For this collection of family members, friends, colleagues, artists, and lovers, there is an even deeper tradition than just marching for Mardi Gras. It began in the 1980’s when the gay community was stricken by AIDS and so many loved ones were lost. During Mardi Gras, and particularly during the march of St Anne, ashes of lost loved ones are mixed with glitter and distributed, in tiny pouches, to be affixed to costumes and carried, eventually, to the river. When the costumed horde reaches the river those mixtures are lovingly sprinkled; the ashes disappear quickly but the glitter stays afloat and snakes first upriver, then down, and while tears fall and final goodbyes are said, large fabric covered rings (the “crab nets”) are dipped into the water and then hoisted back above the crowd to spray river water as a symbol of baptism, a new birth of sorts.
And then, and only then, is the march of St Anne complete. The band plays a few more tunes then they pack up. Some people go home. Some go on to other gigs. Some head to the French Quarter to have a drink and celebrate the end of the Mardi Gras season.
The costumed begin to disrobe. They take off their masks. They hand over their staffs. They loosen their corsets. They hug. They cry. And they head home to eat and sleep and drink, and pack and clean up, and call their friends to tell them all about their magical day.
(photos by Pat Jolly)