Jesters in the Snow: Mardi Gras in Manitou

Three days before Mardi Gras, it was 29 degrees outside and starting to snow. The sky was overcast, and everything was frosted in a thin layer of silver ice. Manitou Springs, however, was a happening place, despite the cold and the threat of snow. Strains of live music spilled out onto the street from the open doors of restaurants and bars, while people in fluorescent orange, jester’s hats, bejeweled masks, and beads tugged dogs and pushed floats toward the main street.

This year was Manitou Springs’ 27th annual Carnivale Parade. Celebrated every year on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, everyone is welcome to build a float or dress up in costume and march along the street. The community lines up on the sidewalk to watch, and prizes are given for the best-costumed and most spirited groups. The event this year was preceded by  “MardiBall” on Friday night, and a gumbo cookoff on Saturday morning. 

The idea of Carnival dates back centuries. It’s thought to have originated as a Christian tradition in the Middle Ages in Europe, as a way for people to throw off some of their winter frustrations and eat the last of their food stores before the fasting season of Lent. It combines features of Germanic folk rituals to chase away winter spirits and welcome spring. The Lenten fast, where people traditionally give up things like meat, fat, dairy, and sugar, lasts from Ash Wednesday until the day before Easter Sunday. The Carnival season preceding Lent was historically a time of reversed social roles and relaxed behavioral standards, where people feasted, dressed up in costume, partook in fertility rituals, and engaged in social satire. The tradition continues to the present day, most famously in locations like Venice, Italy and New Orleans. 

Photos Courtesy of B Powers

In Manitou Springs, the Carnivale Parade started decades ago, with local artists simply walking down the sidewalks and carrying their art. After several years, it moved into the streets and became the town-wide celebration it is today. 

This year, musicians played from a flatbed stage on the street for most of the morning, while artists gave demonstrations on the sidewalks to passerby. Even the Girl Scouts were in attendance, with cookie stands set up at strategic intervals along the parade route.

The parade kicked off around 1 p.m., as announcers replaced the musicians to declare the parade’s sponsors and nominate royalty (a king and queen, as well as several dukes and maids). “Let the good times roll!” they said, the catchphrase of Mardi Gras celebrations. “Stay in town for the music, food, fun!”

A police car blasting “We All Shine On” led the parade, followed by costumed people dragging a massive balloon arch. Artists wearing giant paper mache animal heads danced by next, followed by a float with “Keep Manitou Weird” emblazoned on the side. There were people in jester hats throwing beads at the crowd, women dancing with hula hoops, a man on a tall bike, a music group with yellow capes, saxophones, and kazoos. Some of the groups were put together by local businesses and institutions, while others were just friends and family in costume. One such family group was dressed as unicorns, including a toddler in a stroller and a dog with a pink horned hat; another sported tiny sparkling fairy wings tied to their backs. 

The parade is very different from Manitou’s more famous Emma Crawford Coffin Races, which happens every October. The streets weren’t nearly as crowded, and the vibe was more local. The parade periodically halted as small children ran into the middle to grab candy and necklaces. Parents held kids on their shoulders to see, and dogs in costume were everywhere. As the parade ended, a police officer called, “Free hugs!” through his megaphone, directing people to hug his grinning colleague. 

“Love each other, party hard, and really enjoy yourselves!” the announcers called as the parade ended as people cleared quickly from the cold sidewalks, drawn toward the warmth and music emanating from restaurants lining the street. 

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