Carnival reminds us of the annual outburst of azaleas.

Each year, otherwise ordinary bushes inconspicuously bunched around town and still wearing their winter colors of drab green, suddenly burst with flowers, enriching the landscape with splashes of reds, pinks and purples. Some whole blocks radiate as though spirits with palettes were sent to manifest winter’s end. But then one day, just as the spectrum seems most pervasive, it’s gone. The flowers have withered or blown away.

The season, though brilliant, is short. There will be other brief color displays throughout the year, including irises and crepe myrtles, but nothing is as overwhelming as the azaleas at their peak. Quickly the memory of the flowers is forgotten, all the better to build the surprise for the coming year.

By the Thursday before Mardi Gras, Carnival becomes dominant in the city’s life. Formerly the largest crowds were found on Saturday, Sunday and then on Mardi Gras, but now the buildup begins on Thursday with the ever-popular Muses parade joining Babylon and Chaos.

On Friday, the combination of the sassy Le Krewe d’Etat preceded by effervescent Hermes draw the first of the weekend revelers. On Saturday evening, Carnival’s biggest parade, Endymion, is such a force that it dominates the Canal Street and Mid-City area. (Earlier impish Tucks and stately Iris have filled the Uptown route.) Bacchus on Sunday as always attracts high numbers, as does Thoth, which is becoming a Bacchus-sized parade. Between the two is the ever-creative march of the Krewe of Mid-City. On Lundi Gras the combination of Orpheus and Proteus provides two of Carnival’s most beautiful parades. Then there’s the big day itself, awakened by the boisterous Zulu and highlighted by Rex King of Carnival who presents Carnival’s definitive parade.

Preceding all that was the first weekend of parades highlighted by Sparta (with its magnificent King’s float pulled by mules and illuminated by flambeaux), Carrollton and Pontchartrain. In the days that followed, Ancient Druids brought a stylized parade to the streets and the relatively new group of Nyx built on the female base that Muses started.

Carnival has grown in many ways during recent years, including the new street level walking groups, such as the Organ Grinders and Bearded Oysters, that now add humor to parades.

On the big day itself, one of Carnival’s most visually spectacular moments is the procession of the Society of St. Anne though Marigny and the French Quarter. The hundreds of maskers provide some of the season’s best costumes.

By Mardi Gras night the season drags to a close enforced by the police who, at midnight, will have their own procession in the Quarter announcing that it’s time to move on. Carnival’s last visual moment is on television as the Captain of Comus, having seen off Rex and his court, oversees the closing of the season.

On the day after Mardi Gras, trash has been push-broomed into piles throughout downtown. Included in the rubble are strings of broken beads and bobbled baubles flung from the parades. Where there was face paint the day before some people have black smudges on their forehead from having attended Ash Wednesday services. Carnival has traversed from dust to dust.

How grand the flora had been, but now it’s gone. Jazz Fest isn’t far away. Maybe by then the jasmine will be fragrant.


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