According to the French Quarter bartender serving my Sazarac, the Easter Parade was the brainchild of, “A well preserved eighty year old showgirl and her curated contingent of New Orleans friends.” My back home New Orleans to Seattle expat friend assured me the Easter parade would illustrate the grand tradition of genteel Southern ladies dressed in Easter bonnets accompanied by dapper gents in boater hats. And the NOLA pedi-cab driver described it as the craziest, wildest party in New Orleans, second only to Mardi Gras.
As it turned out all three descriptions were spot on because the New Orleans French Quarter celebrates Easter Sunday in exuberant style with not one, but three distinctly different parades. Amazingly, not one of the three NOLA locals I spoke to knew about the 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, straw boat hats, flowing chiffon and a sea of seersucker and bowties were the costume de rigueur as ladies and gentlemen boarded fancy horse drawn carriages and convertibles at Antoine’s Restaurant and rolled through the French Quarter streets tossing plush bunnies and candy before disembarking at Jackson Square. There, they made their way through the artists, tarot card readers and unsuspecting tourists strolling with their plastic cups of Bloody Marys to St. Louis Cathedral for 11 AM Mass. Post service, the celebrants promenaded Jackson Square before boarding their buggies and returning to Antoine’s to award prizes for Most Exquisite Chapeaux, Grand Easter Basket and Regal Attire.
Following that event comes the Chris Owens French Quarter Easter Parade. 2016 was the 33rd time the local icon of Bourbon Street and former showgirl, Chris Owens and her merry band of friends and supporters put on this impressive event. It also began at a local hotel, The Astor Crowne Ballroom, with a Southern breakfast, an Easter hat contest and silent auction of bidders who want to ride in one of the parade floats. Then the vintage cars, brass bands, dance teams and floats lined up at the corner of Bourbon St and Canal St and snaked through the French Quarter tossing out beads and Easter themed trinkets to the crowds. By tradition the parade is led by Ms. Owens, as Grand Duchess (it is her parade after all) who stands on an extravagant float dressed in a colorful Easter ensemble and bonnet that she designs each year for the event. The money raised supports music education in New Orleans schools.
The final parade, the Annual Gay Easter Parade (last year marked the 17th event) had all of the trappings, costumes and extravagance of the earlier processions. There were Easter chapeaux, chiffon, bow ties and horse drawn carriages that made the two earlier festivities feel sedate by comparison. Brass bands in traditional and untraditional uniforms, dance teams and Grand Marshalls all competed for the crowd’s attention. While this parade follows some of the same French Quarter route as the other two, it makes a point of passing by LBGT friendly bars and restaurants often pausing to pick up costumed onlookers who turn out for the celebration. The parade ends at an after party at Grandpre’s, a gay bar with a colorful history. It was a raucous, irreverent bead tossing extravaganza – 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.