Valencia, Spain: The Artists of the Fallas Festival

Squeezed in among the expectant crowd on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in Valencia, Spain, I knew I was about to watch an explosion. The 2pm Mascleta is a daily tradition of the Fallas Festival. I did not anticipate the teeth tingling, throat vibrating, ground shaking impact of over 200 pounds of gunpowder going off in what the tourist brochures describe as a “perfectly synchronized rhythmic symphony of noise finishing with a 20 second grand finale.” The March festival of Fallas is a noisy, colorful nineteen day event that begins on March 1st and ends late on the night of March 19th, St Joseph’s Feast Day, which is where the celebration has its more humble beginnings. Its an opportunity for local artists and craftspeople of to showcase their talents and that includes the pyrotechnicians responsible for Mascleta and the fireworks shows that are part of the festivities. Also the cooks who make the bunuelos, the pumpkin fritters that are a Fallas specialty; the brass band musicians and dancers and the seamstresses who create the elaborate traditional costumes seen on the streets.

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But the original artistic stars of Fallas are the designers, carpenters, painters, moldmakers and technicians who create and assemble life-size and larger  figurines called ninots onto neighborhood platforms in scenes that depict all manner of political and satirical statements. A scene of ninots is called a fallas which is how the festival got its name and the fallas aren’t on full display until the final three days of the festival when their artistic teams have a designated window of time to fully assemble their creations. There are only a few days for the public to wander Valencia to view all 500-700 ninots before the final act of Fallas, the burning of all the ninots in a fire known as Crema which occurs on March 19th.

It was in the 18th century that early versions of ninots became part of the celebration of the Feast Day of St Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters and craftsmen in the Catholic religion. Craftsmen would traditionally sweep out their shops of wood scraps accumulated over the winter on St Joseph’s Day, a symbolic end to the winter and welcoming of spring. Their large T-shaped candleholders called parots would get propped in front of buildings (or suspended as puppets between buildings) dressed as figures that represented some injustice that had occurred during the previous year.

Those simple early ninots have evolved into magnificent wax and polystrene figurines that require such precise skills that the artists who create them now have their own guild, The Guild of Falleros Artists; at least two schools who specialize in training them; two museums dedicated to their work and a part of Valencia known as Cuidad del Artisto Fallera  (the City of Falleros Artists) where many of them have full-time workshops.

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To find out more about the art of creating a fallas, begin at the Museo del Artista Fallero located in City of Falleros Artists in the quiet Benicalap district northwest of Vallencia’s historic quarter. The museum is open year round from 10AM-2PM and 4pm-7PM Monday-Friday and Saturdays from 10AM – 2PM. There is a small auditorium in the back of the main floor and if you ask the museum staff they are happy to show you the video (available in multiple languages) that traces the evolution of the process of building ninots from its humble beginnings in the 18th century to the complex craft it is today.

Then wander the two story museum to see the process for yourself. There are examples of early water color and pencil sketches (the first step in the process as the ninots must be approved by the neighborhood committees who ultimately pay for their creation); scale models of the fallas, examples of the wooden skeletons on which the larger ninots are constructed and the final product including the previous year’s favorite ninot voted on by the public. The talents of the Falleros Artists are in high demand and  many of them have been internationally commissioned to design movie and theatre sets, displays for industry and trade shows and other museums which are also on display in the museum.

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Turn left when exiting the front door of the museum and wander among the industrial buildings housing the workshops of many of the artists. I was there the first week in March and many of the workshop doors were open with artists putting the final touches on their Fallas creations. I asked permission from the working artists to go inside their workshops and take photos and though my Spanish didn’t fully appreciate the tours they gave me, their evident pride in their work and my appreciation for it crossed language barriers.

One of the largest workshops belonged to Manolo Garcia whose team had been selected to create the 2016 fallas monument representing the City of Valencia displayed in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento; the one subjected to the blasts of the daily Mascleta of gunpowder explosion and traditionally he last fallas to get burned in the fire on March 19th.

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The scale model and the massive pieces of the scene in the workshop did not do justice to the full scale of the monument as it was being constructed.
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Because of its sheer size, much of the actual carpentry happened in the plaza where the public could watch its daily progress. The monument, called Fallas of the World, consisted of a tall wooden human figure surrounded by world “monuments” that had been part of previous years’ fallas structures – the EIffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Concorde jet, the statues of David and Moses.

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Equally large and impressive fallas monuments could be found throughout the city in the neighborhoods who had commissioned them. The most impressive were lit up at night which is one of the best times to appreciate their artistic creativity. Festum Bacchas, a large scale monument showing the life cycle of the area’s wine industry cost 90,000 Euros to build and display according to a member of the neighborhood committee. The committees work all year raising money in a variety of events to pay for their fallas monuments to show their neighborhood pride in Fallas and in hopes of producing a winning monument from the judges who only have two days to see and judge the completed structures.

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Each committee selects one of the ninots from their fallas to display in the Exposition of the Ninots, held this year in the Prince Felipe Museum in the City of Arts and Sciences. For 38 days (in 2016 from February 5-March 15) members of the public (including tourists) can wander through the display of ninots and cast a vote for the one that should be saved from the fire. Called the Ninot Indultant, the tradition of saving one figure from the fire first became a tradition in the 1930s in response to public sentiment that something should be saved to commemorate the artistic effort of that year’s fallas artists.
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In 2016 it was a ninot from the Festum Bacchas fallas that the public voted to save; a farmer playng a guitar while a small girl and her dog listen. In addition to the Museo del Artisto Falleros, the city has a second museum open year round dedicated to Fallas called the Museo Falleros where all of the ninots indultants saved from the fire since 1934 are on display. The progression of technology and art over the years is evident in the chronology of ninots. The early ninots were wooden and paper mache figures dressed in real clothing. As the artists began to use wax, clay and cardboard, polyester and then polystrene, the ninots got more complex and the fallas monuments more extravagant.

The art of the Fallas Artist Guild can be appreciated any time of the year by visiting both museums, but to see it in its full glory, it really must be seen during Fallas and in particular, in the three days leading up to March 19th. If you are not a fan of the high decibel noise of the daily Mascleta and the miniature neighborhood mascletas that seem to occur all day and much of the night in the final week, then finding accommodations outside the historic city center is advised. Bus and metro transportation run frequently and you can just wander the city’s streets where you’ll  find a fallas on most street corners. Ask locals for the best fallas to see since you won’t be able to see all of them. And don’t get too attached; they all go up in flames on March 19th save one ninot indultant. By the morning of March 20th, the streets have been cleaned of burnt debris as though nothing was there. But the artists of Fallas Artist Guild are busy planning their creations for the following year.

 

 

 

How India Begot Spain

The instructions for the 30 day India non-extendable tourist visa are clear. I must have proof that I’m exiting the country at the end of my visa or I may not be allowed to enter the country at the New Delhi airport. Hmm.

I’m a month away from my trip to India as a volunteer in a humanitarian project. I’m well into my normal pre-trip mode. I’ve been doing guidebook research to get a general sense of where I’ll be (England’s Rough Guides publications are my favorites for their more detailed descriptions and budget travel advice). Though I’ll be mostly traveling with a small group on a guided itinerary, I like knowing some facts before arriving. My advance reading always includes travel memoirs to get a more personal sense of the country. Because it’s India and women traveling there need to be particularly aware of cultural differences, I’m reading female authors. The annual anthology, The Best Women’s Travel Writing is always a good start. Also the owners of my favorite local travel store, The Traveler, on Bainbridge Island carry a well curated collection of guidebooks and memoirs and are generous with advice. Since my final week will be spent working in one of Mother Teresa’s hospitals or orphanages, my online research has focused on what that experience will be like. In spite of all my pre-trip reading, I try to enter a country in a state of modified tabula rasa – open to the newness of my journey and as free of preconceived notions as possible.

What I hadn’t done (I realized while completing the online 30 day India visa) was to make a plan to return home. Unencumbered by the boundaries of work and limited vacation days my peregrine self had focused on the getting there and the experience of being there but not the getting out of there. Which is how India begot Spain.

I have a love affair with Saudi Arabia’s Emirates Airlines. Heavily subsidized by the Saudi government it’s an airline that still treats it’s international coach passengers with elegance (real silver wear, plates and menu choices) and grace (more legroom, soft, muted colors and interesting in-flight entertainment). Because of the government funding, it’s also often less expensive than any other airline. It has a direct flight from Seattle to Dubai. And as a partner with Alaska Airlines, allows use of Alaska frequent flier miles. It’s taking me to India. Where could it take me cheaply away from India if 1) I could continue traveling in March and April, 2) I didn’t want to stay anywhere in Asia as March begins their season of heat and humidity, 3) I didn’t want to go anywhere in Europe that required packing winter clothes and 4) I really need to improve my Spanish?

Valencia, Spain (…..via Madrid). Valencia, Spain’s third largest city, is located on its eastern coast with the geography of a subtropical Mediterranean climate. It’s March weather is temperate and it has the added bonus of having an annual two week festival in March, Las Fallas, that celebrates the end of winter. It also has language schools. And my search for accommodations found an inexpensive, charming Airb&b apartment in the historic district that the owner will rent to me for a discount because I’m staying a month. But then Valencia begot Salamanca, Spain.

In doing some research for a Spanish language school, I also discovered a volunteer opportunity near Salamanca. In return for me practicing English with students taking a week long English immersion class, I would get a free week of accommodations and meals at the 4 star mountain resort where the course was being held. I applied (I was a high school English teacher). I got accepted. I’m going. And I still haven’t planned the return trip home.

 

 

 

My Colombia New Years Eve

It felt like a war zone. The traditions that were part of Pasto, Colombia’s New Years celebration – so quirky and charming in the daylight – had transformed into rockets, exploding body parts and burning pyres at midnight. Yes, the body parts were made of paper mache but given a Girl Scout childhood shaped by the U.S. advertising campaign of Smokey the Bear (“Only YOU can prevent forest fires”) I was certain real body parts were going to be lost that night. Also that the entire city would go up in flames. Only later did I learn that Colombia outlawed New Years fireworks in 2009 because so many children were getting injured, but this was 2012 and we were in the southwest corner of the country where word of a ban had clearly not traveled.

The peregrine son and I had arrived in Pasto on New Years Eve day after spending Christmas in Medellin and in preparation for Pasto’s five day Festival of Blacks and Whites. We knew the town also had an  Ano Viejo celebration that resembled the ones they have in Ecuador which we’d missed in our travels there.  Ano Viejo, “Old Year” gives participants the opportunity to rid themselves of anger, grudges and failures of the old year before welcoming in the new year.

Traveling from the airport into town we ran into blockades of young men dressed as women. Symbolically they represent the widows of the paper mache effigies which will explode at midnight. They asked for coins to let us pass, part of the good-natured buildup to the evening’s celebration.

Traditionally each family creates a life-sized paper mache doll called a taitapuro or carrancho the day after Christmas and displays it outside their house until New Years Eve. Some families pose the effigy on their car and drive it around on New Years Eve Day. As midnight approaches the family recites the grievances of the past year and at midnight they burn the effigy.

Commerce and media have influenced the celebration and now there are entire markets of paper mache dolls. You can buy a whole doll or body parts to make your own. You can also now buy dolls that look like cartoon characters, politicians and movie stars.

We each purchased a doll (Sponge Bob Square Pants and Wonder Woman) and then crossed the street to a cantina and bought them beer – their last meal.

DSC00598Just before midnight we walked up to the main plaza with matches to burn our doll and that’s when the street explosions began because the more boisterous celebrants put fireworks inside their effigy. Its not enough to gently burn it, it must be blown to smithereens.

As we made our way in the dark through the funeral pyres of effigies and active blasts we were beckoned by three young women into the doorway of an apartment building for safety. And then invited upstairs to their extended family’s all night New Years celebration where we were pressed to eat food (lentil soup, a tradition that brings good luck in the New Year and 12 grapes which brings luck each month.)  And we were taught to salsa dance by the grandmother. There was much toasting of the family members and of us, as their guests…. multiple times. Somewhere in the bleary hours of the New Year I learned of another Colombian New Years tradition – wearing yellow underpants, preferably backwards. For peace and happiness in the New Year.

 

 

 

 

Vancouver, Canada: A German Christmas Market

Vancouver 5I was on the hunt for a pickle ornament. Also for an infusion of my own family’s holiday German heritage. Traveling to Germany wasn’t a possibility this year but I’d spent part of December with family there a few years ago and was enamored of the country’s December street markets known as Christkindlmarkts (literally translated as “Christ child market”). While Christmas markets can be found all over Europe, particularly in Germany, Austria, Italy and France, the traditions of the German Christkindlmarkt  go back to the Late Middle Ages in the German speaking parts of Europe. They were both a festive meeting place and an opportunity for townspeople to sell and buy homemade ornaments, cuckoo clocks, nutcrackers and toys with each town’s market having its own specialties.

Traditionally the markets were part of the Catholic Church’s Advent season which heralds in the Christmas birth of Christ. Today they have less of a religious connection (depending on where you are in Germany) offering locals and visitors an opportunity to mingle in an open air venue (usually a town square or plaza), listen and dance to music, eat (bratwurst, and a soft gingerbread called lebkuchen) and shop in preparation for Christmas. And because it’s cold in Germany in December, multiple stalls sell gluhwein, a hot mulled wine that comes with or without a shot of brandy in a colorful coffee mug that you can return or buy. The night time Christkindlemarkts are magical – all twinkling lights, the scent of gingerbread and the sounds of Christmas carols. If it happens to snow as it did while I was wandering the market, you’ll swear you’ve just stepped into a Hallmark card.

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Which brings me to that pickle ornament and my longing for a budget version of the German markets. I live in Washington State and for most anyone craving a bit of European Christmas, the default destination is usually Leavenworth. But I’d been there and since I also wanted to feel like I was traveling out of the country, I headed north by train to Vancouver, Canada for their German Christmas Market which opens on November 21st and closes on Christmas Eve.

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Located outdoors on the Queen Elizabeth Plaza downtown, the Vancouver market has all the trimmings of its European counterparts. German themed food and craft stalls surrounded a large Christmas tree and festive wooden stage that held a full schedule of musical groups. There was bratwurst and lebkuchen and since it was cold in Vancouver, everyone was bundled up in northwest Gortex with hands wrapped around steaming cups of gluhwein (with and without rum). There in a display of German tree ornaments, I spotted pickles for sale.

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The American legend of the pickle ornament is that families in Germany hang it as the last ornament on the tree after children have gone to bed on Christmas Eve. In the morning the first child to find the pickle receives an extra gift from St. Nicholas and the first adult to spot it gets a year of good luck. However, like the myth of Santa Claus, the German pickle tradition is the product of American marketing. No self-respecting family in Germany hangs a pickle on their tree. Traditionally in Germany it is St Nicholas (the patron saint of children, students, teachers, sailors and merchants) who brings the presents on his feast day of Nikolaustag on about December 6th. Traditionally family gifts are opened on Christmas Eve, not Christmas morning .

However, like many families who immigrated to the U.S., mine, over the generations, has succumbed to the Americanized public relations version of the holiday season. Likely the myth of the pickle was a way to sell the fruit and vegetable Christmas tree ornaments that were imported from Germany. Nonetheless, I bought one in the Vancouver German Christmas Market and hung it on my tree next to the Santa, Elf on the Shelf and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer ornaments. My pilgrimage to find a pickle was really just an excuse to re-enact a Hallmark card scene in a German Christkindlmarkt in Canada.

 

Poulsbo: A Norwegian Christmas at Home

I’m not Norwegian. Not one iota of Norwegian blood is in my family roots. And yet by sheer serendipity, I’ve grown up surrounded by Norwegian tradition and history. My birthplace of Hettinger, North Dakota was 68% German (mostly Catholic) and 11% Norwegian (mostly Lutheran). A fellow Hettingerite and blogger at The Prairie Blog recalls the saga of the “mixed marriage” in his family, one similar to my own family history . Despite the minority status of the Hettinger Norwegian community, my German Catholic grandmother and parents played their weekly pinochle games with Norwegians and owned businesses with them so I grew up eating lefse (only at Christmas and only with butter, sugar and cinnamon), making krumkake and going as a guest to the far better events for children over at the Lutheran church than the staid Catholic Church offered.

In both high school and graduate school, the school mascot was a Viking meaning that five years of my educational path was imprinted by fierce looking Scandinavian men in horned helmets. At Western Washington University, in order to humanize the image, they gave him a name, Victor E. Viking and a webpage.

So it was with some familiarity and a sense of comfort that I moved with my young son to Poulsbo, Washington in 1990 for a job. OleStubbOriginally settled by Ole Stubb (formerly Ole Anderson Stubbhaug) from Fordefjord, Norway, (who incidentally briefly settled in South Dakota before heading west) the town is steeped in Scandinavian tradition. Norwegian was the primary language in the community until World War II. In fact, all the elderly neighbors on the street where I lived after first moving to Poulsbo, spoke Norwegian and would regale the neighborhood gatherings with stories of Poulsbo back in the day.  The Norwegians largely settled around the bay of water now known as Liberty Bay (formerly called Dogfish Bay) because it reminded them of the fjords back home. The Swedish immigrants congregated in an area still known as Swede Hill and the Finnish immigrants in an area still known as Finn Hill.

The month of December is always a glorious reminder of the town’s Scandinavian holiday heritage. The main street’s Christmas lights go up at the end of November. The downtown stores outdo themselves with decorations giving the entire street a magical feeling, particularly after dark. The three story Sons of Norway Hall which occupies a prime main street location overlooking the park and Liberty Bay begins its preparations for the Jule Fest which occurred on December 5th this year. All day on the building is open to the public for a Norwegian crafts and food bazaar serving pea soup and rommegrot, a traditional sour cream porridge.

At dusk everyone convenes below the hall at the town’s large Norwegian themed outdoor pavilion for hot cider and hot chocolate to watch the Lucia Bride arrive by boat accompanied by…..yes…Vikings…to light the Yule Log.

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Participants in Julefest hold hands and sing around the Christmas tree in Poulsbo on Saturday, December 5, 2015. (MEEGAN M. REID / KITSAP SUN)

There’s dancing by the Norwegian folk dance group, singing by a Norwegian choir and story-telling about the history of the yule log.

Throughout the month Santa greets children at his house located on the main street and horse drawn carriages promenade downtown carrying locals and visitors.

While not Scandinavian by heritage, I like to think of myself as Scandinavian by culture. December in Poulsbo brings out the kvinne in me.

 

Pasto, Colombia: The Foam and Greasepaint of El Carnaval de Negros y Blancos

55KBStanding on the street, I was already saturated from head to toe with white foam, flour and the blue greasepaint that a passer-by smeared on my face when suddenly an angelic looking little girl took aim with her over-sized can of foam and sprayed me with yet more “espuma.” Then she turned and doused her laughing grandfather with another squirt from her can. Such is the playful scene happening everywhere on the streets of Pasto, Colombia during its January 2-7 boisterous festival known as El Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (The Carnaval of Blacks and Whites)  – a festival designated as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and a celebration not for the shy or faint of heart.  I had seen my share of staid festivals in other countries that required little more than watching and admiring. I had come to Pasto to take part in a tradition that required audience participation.

The five day festival celebrates the area’s multi-ethnic heritage. In addition to Dia de Blancos, the day of white flour and foam, the festivities also include Dia de Negro – when the younger crowd paints themselves with black greasepaint to honor the Carnaval’s 1607 origins that began with the threat of a slave revolt. To avoid the rebellion, the Spanish Crown gave slaves of southern Colombia’s Spanish hacienda owners an annual day off for the Catholic celebration of the Epiphany. The slave population celebrated by taking to the streets with music and dancing and by painting everyone with black shoe polish and soot to endow all hacienda residents with a common identity. While I could appreciate the historical sentiment, I was still finding flour in all my crevices and decided to watch from the sidelines.

55KB (2)Since 1928 when several traditions were formalized with a parade, additional days have been added to the week long Carnaval event blending together both indigenous traditions and Epiphany activities. January 2nd and 3rd are celebrated as Carnavelito and the Parade of La Familia Casteneda, respectively – two days of joyful, colorful parades of folkloric groups, musicians, stilt walkers and dancers from Andean villages all around the region. January 5th is Dia de Negro.

Those events lead up to January 6th – Dia de Blanco, the day everyone claimed was the craziest and most amazing day of Carnaval. I did notice the afternoon before that all the stores in the city center were boarding up their windows. Pedro, the manager of my hotel, warned me I needed extra cans of foam and protection for my camera before venturing out that day. Also sun glasses to keep the foam out of my eyes. There would be more flour and foam than had been seen in the streets in all previous days of the festival.

Surely it couldn’t be more exuberant than what I’d seen already! At breakfast I queried the owners of the nearby coffee shop. They said the parade of super-sized puppets and floats, called enormes carrosas, would be especially colorful this year – they’d been designed and built throughout the year providing jobs for thousands of local artisans. And they said the parade, which began at 9AM would last at least five hours during which time I would be pelted with flour and sprayed with foam by the parade audience. And lastly they instructed that I needed to shout, “Viva Pasto!” until I was hoarse. They weren’t kidding.

55 KB 5As with the two parades of previous days it was an interactive, audience and participant extravaganza of color, music and stunning costumes. The enormes carrosas were as fanciful and beautiful as promised and I emerged from the crowd, hoarse and caked in a ghostly white layer of crusty flour.

The festivities end quietly on January 7th, the Dia de Cuy – day of the guinea pig.  The foam, flour greasepaint vendors disappear. The streets are cleaned overnight. Exhausted tourists crowd the airport and bus stations and the residents of Pasto end Carnaval with a feast of the Andes tasty, traditional, “microlivestock” – the guinea pig.

NOLA Easter Sunday Times Three

According to the French Quarter bartender serving my Sazarac, “the Easter Parade was the brainchild of, “a well preserved 80 year old showgirl and her curated contingent of NOLA friends.” A back home NOLA to Seattle expat colleague assured me the Easter parade would illustrate the grand tradition of genteel Southern ladies dressed in their Easter bonnets accompanied by dapper men in derbies. My NOLA pedicab driver described it as the second craziest, wildest party in the city. And of course since the city celebrates the coming of the penitential season of Lent with Mardi Gras, why would they not throw a party for Easter as well?

As it turned out all three descriptions were spot on because the New Orleans French Quarter celebrates Easter Sunday in style with not one but three distinctly different parades; their version of a festivities lagniappe for locals and visitors. Amazingly, not one of my three NOLA insiders knew about entire triumvirate of festivities which get increasingly more colorful and flamboyant as the day progresses.

Easter Sunday morning begins with the most traditional of the processions, The Historic French Quarter Easter Parade. Big hats, flowing chiffon and a sea of seersucker and bow ties are the costume de rigueur as ladies and gentlemen board decorated horse drawn carriages and convertibles at Antoine’s Restaurant and roll through the streets tossing plush bunnies and candy (called throws in NOLA) before disembarking at Jackson Square.

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There, they make their way through the artists, tarot card readers and unsuspecting tourists strolling with their plastic cups of Bloody Mary, to St Louis Cathedral for 11 AM Mass. Post Mass, the celebrants promenade Jackson Square before boarding their buggies and returning to Antoines to award prizes for Most Exquisite Chapeaux, Grand Easter Basket and Regal Attire.

Following that comes the Chris Owens French Quarter Easter Parade. 2015 was the 32nd time the local icon of Bourbon Street and former showgirl, Chris Owens and her merry band of friends and supporters put on this event.  New Orleans parade 2 photo

It also begins at a local hotel (The Astor Crowne Ballroom) with breakfast, an Easter hat contest and silent auction of bidders who want to ride in one of the parade floats.  The money from the auction supports music education in NOLA schools. Then the vintage cars, brass bands, dance teams and floats line up at the corner of Bourbon St and Canal St and snake through the French Quarter tossing out more throws of beads and Easter themed trinkets to the crowds. By tradition the parade is led by Ms Owens, the Grand Duchess (it is her parade after all) who stands on a lavish float dressed in a colorful Easter ensemble and bonnet that she designs each year.

The final parade, the Annual Gay Easter Parade (the 16th annual in 2015) has all of the trappings, costumes and extravagance of the earlier processions, but this version of Easter chapeaux, chiffon, bow ties and horse drawn carriages make the two earlier festivities feel sedate by comparison.

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It is a raucous, irreverent bead tossing extravaganza complete with multiple Grand Marshalls and elaborately costumed brass bands. The parade passes in front of the many LGBT friendly bars in the Quarter and encourages audience participation attracting a crowd that dresses for the gala and joins the procession as it passes. It’s a fitting end to an Easter Sunday celebrated as only the French Quarter knows how to celebrate. It’s also a benefit parade with proceeds going to NO/AIDS Task Force Food for Friends program.