New Orleans revs up the Mardi Gras mood

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The Independent Online

Still giddy from tasting Super Bowl success, New Orleans residents ratcheted up the party mood Tuesday and put the finishing touches to their costumes for the legendary Mardi Gras.

The most committed of the revelers in the southern US city gathered on a freezing Monday night for the final evening of torch-lit parades before the big event.

"I'm going to see if I can get a flambeaux right now!" said Jack Huber, 60, a retired contractor.

The 12-day carnival season culminates Tuesday with Mardi Gras - a citywide celebration featuring gaudy costumes, marching bands and decorative floats with riders tossing beads, doubloons and trinkets to huge crowds.

The season is the fifth since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and the excitement over the New Orleans Saints' first-ever Super Bowl win has overlapped with Carnival festivities.

The result is a collective lifting of public spirits to heights not seen since Katrina's floodwaters devastated the city on August 29, 2009 - killing nearly 1,000 residents and displacing tens of thousands more from their homes.

"We're back!" Lawton Fabacher, 29, a native New Orleanian said as she sprayed gray paint on a replica of the Saints Super Bowl trophy before a parade Sunday night.

Fabacher, an unemployed school teacher, who gets by on contract work as a substitute instructor, said the Saints' internationally televised Super Bowl victory had been a major boost for the city's flood-worn image.

"This (team) is like a big billboard for this city," she said, triumphantly.

Moments later, the Bacchus parade got under way, with the Valentine's Day theme "Love is in the Air."

Tens of thousands of spectators dressed in Valentine-red mingled with Saints fans attired in team colors of black-and-gold, mixed in with traditional Carnival colors of purple, green and gold.

Marching bands played Saints' theme songs like "Halftime (Stand Up and Get Crunk)" along with Carnival standards, like Al Johnson's "Carnival Time."

As recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, Carnival season begins January 6 - the Feast of the Epiphany - and ends with Mardi Gras, the last festive day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the austere Lenten season.

When Carnival 2010 started last month, Saints fever was already building, with the appearance of traditional seasonal "king cakes" in the team's black and gold, instead of the purple, green and gold colors of the holiday.

A new political era is also dawning in the city with the inauguration of a new mayor and city council on May 3.

Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu, now the state's lieutenant governor, won a stunning 66.5 percent of the vote on February 6 to replace Ray Nagin, an unpopular, term-limited incumbent who led the city through Katrina.

Landrieu's victory was overshadowed by the Saints Super Bowl win the following day, but it was seen as another sign of the city emerging from the bad memories that accompanied the devastating hurricane.

For the moment, the city was happy to enjoy the twin thrills of Super Bowl success and Carnival.

As the Carnival monarch of the Bacchus parade, Saints quarterback Drew Brees - the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player - appeared atop a float dressed as the wine god.

He hurled toy footballs to thrilled crowds below.

Mardi Gras will kick off later Tuesday with jazz great Pete Fountain leading his Half-Fast marching club on its 50th anniversary trek up Saint Charles Avenue to the French Quarter.

Despite near-freezing temperatures overnight, hundreds of ladders and tents lined the streetcar tracks of the historic avenue. Their owners camped out in anticipation of a full morning of parades, marching bands and floats.

The city's Carnival roots date back more than 300 years to March 3, 1699, according to historian Arthur Hardy, writing in his 34th annual Mardi Gras Guide magazine.

French explorer Pierre Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville, led an expedition that set up camp on the west bank of the Mississippi River downriver from what is now New Orleans.

"Knowing that the day, March 3, was being celebrated as a major holiday in Paris, they christened the site Pointe du Mardi Gras," Hardy noted.