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The "Queen of Bounce House," house float honors musician (and Krewe of House Floats inaugural Grand Marshal) Big Freedia, and is a concept by Dr. Sarena Teng. The Big Freedia artwork is by Maddie Stratton and Coco Darrow of Stronghold Studios.

New Orleans Canceled Mardi Gras Parades, But Not the Magic of Carnival

published Feb 16, 2021
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Magic isn’t hard to come by in New Orleans. It spills out of the city’s many restaurants, where tantalizing smells from seafood and Cajun dishes mingle with the scents of jasmine, gardenias, and magnolias in the spring and summer. It floats in the air along with the notes from a trumpet when a brass band is playing outside nearby. It hangs off every single charming architectural detail on the city’s many stunning houses. Honestly, magical is the only way to describe the way it feels to be sipping a delicious wine with friends on The Delachaise’s softly-lit patio when a St. Charles streetcar rumbles down the neutral ground. And while New Orleans plays host to any number of holiday celebrations and festivals throughout the year, the city’s magic culminates during Mardi Gras season (and especially Mardi Gras day), which is so, so much more than just a crowded Bourbon street full of drunk revelers.

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New Orleans-based artist, crafter, and self-proclaimed Mardi Gras enthusiast Shannon Kelley decked her home with colorful flowers.

Mardi Gras is the most joyous celebration of life, laughter, uniqueness, and absurdity that you’ll ever get to experience. It’s when you throw off all worries, fears, and deadlines. It’s the complete and total embrace of doing whatever you want to do, indulging in each one of life’s finer delights, forgetting your troubles, celebrating your life, and more. In the words of Mark Twain: “It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans.”

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Another Stronghold Studio design is this Golden Girls house float.

And while I know there has been so much pain and suffering for so many people throughout the world because of this pandemic, New Orleanians have felt a very distinct sadness in having our beloved carnival season — with all its parades, crawfish boils, parties, balls, costuming, drinking, laughing, and dancing — get canceled this year. It’s absolutely the right decision and many of us support it 100 percent. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t all incredibly bummed out. It left me worried about the lack of magic we’d be feeling around this time of year. But New Orleans wasn’t going to let something like Mardi Gras parades getting canceled because of a pandemic get in the way of having fun or being creative. Thankfully, residents are a crafty, creative, and industrious bunch.

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A house fit for a Prince.

This year, the people have been crowned king, and the houses have been transformed into floats. And I don’t mean one or two people have decorated their houses. Thousands of people have joined the Krewe of House Floats, founded by Megan Boudreaux, as a way to celebrate Mardi Gras. “I know a lot of folks are sad and disappointed that Mardi Gras cannot be normal this year, but I am hoping that Krewe of House Floats can be a way for folks to channel their creative energy, make something positive out of a bad situation, and have something to look forward to in 2021,” she wrote on the official Krewe website. “This is really about coming up with creative ways to celebrate carnival that keep everyone safe until we can get through to the other side of this pandemic.” Divided into neighborhoods with their own themes (including an ex-pat group for those physically living out of New Orleans), folks were encouraged to funnel their DIY skills into crafting decorations to turn their homes into “floats,” a visual homage to the colorful parade floats that have been entertaining and delighting revelers for decades.

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The "Maison Du Monde (on the Bakery Village Food Channel)" bills itself as "A celebration of Coffee and Beignets [in the] Irish Channel."

I can’t really put into words how amazing, life-affirming, and soul-recharging it has been to walk and bike around my beautiful city and see the explosions of color, glitter, and ingenuity on display, on houses big and small. There are lots of homes decorated with symbols of Mardi Gras, like masks, fringe, and the colors purple, green, and gold. I saw multiple homes dedicated to the carnival season confection known as king cake (and the king cake baby!). Huge and vibrant handmade flowers have dominated many a façade, as have oversized strings of beads that look like jewels dripping off porches and columns. But my favorite house floats have been the themed homes. From those inspired by television shows like “Schitt’s Creek” and “Golden Girls,” to the ones inspired by animals (this dog- and cat-lover TRULY appreciated all the homes dedicated to good boys and girls), to those based on music and food (two of the most important things in New Orleans)!

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Many, if not most, of the house decorations were crafted by regular folks like you and me (and I bet some discovered a talent for float building they never knew was hiding in them all along), but this movement also provided an opportunity to support some of the Mardi Gras artists and float builders who found themselves out of work this year due to the holiday’s cancellation. The Krewe of Red Beans (full disclosure: My boyfriend and I are both members of this krewe!) — already pretty well known for amazing charitable efforts like Feed the Front Line and Feed the Second Line — launched the initiative Hire a Mardi Gras Artist to raise money to pay out-of-work float builders and artists to create and install professional house float designs. The result has been nothing short of extraordinary; more than 20 of these professionally-designed houses now dot the city’s landscape, adding to an already delightful mix of decorated architecture never seen before.

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The first house float produced by the Hire a Mardi Gras Artist initiative, called "The Night Tripper," an homage to beloved musician Dr. John.

Some homeowners without DIY skills opted to hire float builders themselves to directly support artists; Stronghold Studios are the creatives who made the Big Freedia, Leah Chase, and Golden Girls homes (some of my favorites), among many others. But whether the efforts around the city’s dwellings (and some businesses) were professional or amateur, the effect has been the same: I feel so incredibly lucky to live in a city that celebrates creativity… and that worked together to transform what would have been a very dreary February into the eruption of joy that it has been this year.

This amazing house is dedicated to the "Queen of Creole Cuisine" Leah Chase, who was the longtime chef at local restaurant Dooky Chase, and whose contributions to the food world are uncountable. Not pictured (I couldn't time it right!) the "steam" that actually comes out of the pot at different intervals of the day!

One final note: I don’t know when house floats will be disassembled… but even if you have it on good authority that some are still standing, please don’t come to New Orleans from out of town to view it all in person. Let’s all do our part to stop the spread of the pandemic and keep vulnerable populations as healthy as we can. If the photos in this post just aren’t enough and you need to see more (and believe me, I BARELY scratched the surface!), there are few different ways to “tour” all this creativity. The Krewe of House Floats Instagram feed has lots of images. You can see many of the Hire-a-Mardi-Gras floats on their website. Stronghold Studios has been posting their efforts on their Instagram feed. You can follow the #yardigras and #kreweofhousefloats hashtags on Instagram. And Apartment Therapy’s own house tour photographer Laura Steffan has been chronicling house floats on her Instagram feed.