[Update: Due to weather, the parade has been moved to January 7.]
All Mardi Gras parades are not created equal. While the roiling spectacles of New Orleans super krewes like Endymion, Rex, and Bacchus get most of the turnout, it’s the city’s smaller krewes that captivate hearts. Cadres of nutty creatives that power the likes of ‘tit Rex and the Society of Saint Anne are adored by ardent fans who second line in their wake no matter the weather.
Then there’s the Joan of Arc parade, an entirely different Mardi Gras experience altogether. Taking place each year on the traditional kick-off of carnival season—Twelfth Night, January 6, which also happens to be the Maid of Orléans’ birthday (she’d be 605)—the parade pays tribute to a young woman, a saint, and a martyr. What’s fun about that?
“I think our thoughtful approach to parading is what sets us apart,” said Amy Kirk Duvoisin, founder of the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc. Duvoisin, a transplant from Providence, Rhode Island, who moved to town in 2004, has a lifelong obsession with the martyred saint that dates back to her teen years. “She was a strong, passionate woman and a young martyr, which as a teenager seemed hopelessly romantic,” said Duvoisin, who works as the education director at the Louisiana Children’s Museum. “When I went to France at the age of 22, I visited Rouen, the place where she died. I just have never known anybody with that kind of single-mindedness of purpose.”
The famous peasant-turned-saint was just a teenager when she led the French against an English siege of Orléans in 1429, a victory that helped Charles VII, who was disinherited by his mad father in favor of Henry V of England, to secure his French crown. Captured, tried, and found guilty of various trumped-up charges by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais, Joan was burned at the stake May 30, 1431, at the age of 19. “It didn’t end well for her, that’s for sure,” said Duvoisin.
The notion to salute her hero in an only-in-New-Orleans fashion occurred to Duvoisin a decade ago, in the shadow of the “Joanie on a pony” gilded statue that sits at the confluence of Decatur and North Peters. “Joan of Arc is the unofficial patron saint of New Orleans, yet we don’t celebrate her powerful and purposeful life,” said Duvoisin. “When I realized her birthday was on Twelfth Night, it seemed natural to have a parade.
“This is a city that always seems to forget that it’s French,” she said. “There’s no reason a parade should be devoid of authenticity and mindfulness. Now that I’ve been here a while, a lot of the parades tend to run together. We are definitely different.”
Since its inaugural roll in 2009, the parade, led by one of several renditions of Joan on horseback, has grown organically from a handful of costumed friends and family members to 150 dues-paying members and about the same number of walking groups and volunteers. Dues are $150, and new members are welcome. Members are required to buy or make their costumes and of course their throws, which traditionally include specially made medieval playing cards. Birthday King Cake is munched throughout.
Instead of marching bands, there are madrigal singers and medieval music makers. The parade is rife with symbolism, drawing on each of Joan’s titles: Joan of Arc the Warrior, Joan the Leader, and Joan the Martyr make appearances accompanied with various shepherds and horses. Even the naughty walking clubs self-moderate a tad, toning down their cleavage in angels’ robes, hands clasped as if in prayer. The walking Skinz n Bonez Gang gets into the spirit of things also, adding tongues of flame to their skeleton duds. The parade’s overall vibe is reverence-meets-renaissance fair with a modicum of sass. There is plenty of fun to be had.
The parade rolls at 7 pm January 6, starting at Toulouse and Decatur, passing by the Joan of Arc statue, turning right on Conti, and heading up Chartres with a stop at the Cathedral for a blessing. Most folks crowd that section of the route, but Duvoisin suggests waiting on Ursuline between the convent and Decatur for the best unobstructed views of the action.
Each year, a teenage Joan is picked to be the Maid of Orléans, a process that isn’t as easy as showing up. “We ask for an essay, and then we personally interview the girls,” said Duvoisin. Candidates are also interviewed in French by the Consulate General of France’s cultural attaché, so conversational French is a must. The deadline for entries is November 28, with a selection made by December 6.
“We wanted this parade to recognize and celebrate our French culture,” said Duvoisin. “So there’s more to it than just having a party and dressing up, which of course is very fun. All the characters are based on real people in Joan’s life. We have education as one goal and festivity as the other—I think you can have your King Cake and eat it too.”
For more information or to volunteer, contact Duvoisin at firstname.lastname@example.org. More details at joanofarcparade.org.