The annual Durham Mardi Gras parade starts with the placing of a pink tulle tutu the length of a dining room table on Major, the 10-foot bronze bull that guards CCB Plaza.
“Yes, that has become our sacred duty to put the tutu on the bull,” said Christine Westfall, a member of Durham Mardi Gras society the League of the Tutu.
Mary Yordy, the originator of the tradition, has said it symbolizes a link to all the other places celebrating Fat Tuesday. But Westfall said the moment also symbolizes Durham Mardi Gras’s levity.
“There is something so joyful and idiosyncratically Durham of putting this frilly garment on top of a big bull statue,” Westfall said.
After the ceremony, revelers will then take to the streets for the annual Fat Tuesday parade, marching north up Foster Street, turning east on West Corporation and then north again on Rigsbee Avenue.
If all goes as planned, the Feb. 9 event will mark Durham’s second city-sanctioned Mardi Gras street parade.
For the past five years, the Bull City’s Fat Tuesday celebration has been expanding in participants and events leading up to the parade thanks to members of the Bulltown Stutters, a New Orleans-style street band; home-grown mystic organizations; and other local revelers.
The festivities culminate in the street parade and block party organized by a nonprofit organization, Durham Mardi Gras, Inc.
In 2011, a group of musicians led a small sidewalk parade through downtown. In 2012, a loose coalition of mystic societies took the downtown celebration to the next level as crowds met at CCB Plaza and paraded to Rigsbee Avenue for live music and partying at local venues.
By 2013, about 1,000 revelers participated, and by 2014, organizers had taken steps to establish a city-sanctioned street parade. About 1,500 participated – despite the freezing weather – in the parade and after-party, which included five stages at different venues.
Organizers were planning to hold the second city-sanctioned parade and party in 2015, but snow and ice derailed that effort. Still, some die-hard revelers still came out.
Blaise Kielar, a clarinet player with the Bulltown Strutters, said he and his wife Cathy had already decided to stay at the Marriott in downtown Durham on Mardi Gras night.
After the weather canceled the parade and Rigsbee Avenue block party, the Kielars stopped by Fullsteam Brewery, where people shared their King cakes, an oval shaped Mardi Gras dessert that stands somewhere between a coffee cake and a pastry.
Then the Kielars headed down to Geer Street Garden, where they found a crowd enjoying a special New Orleans style menu. Then the couple, along with the about 20 other Bulltown Strutters who made it downtown, pulled out their instruments and put on an impromptu show.
In general, “We try to bring the Mardi Gras experience everywhere we go,” Blaise Kielar said.
The Bulltown Strutters and its growing following tried to do a second line up the sidewalk to Motorco, but the ice in their path pushed them out into the street. When they made it to Motorco, Kielar said, he was amazed by the about 100 people who had come out.
“It wasn’t the usual packed room that we are used to, but it was defiantly a Mardi Gras party,” he said.
This year, organizers are hoping it will go a lot smoother and inspire the crowds to return to venues that will host various parties from the Bar on Rigsbee down to The Blue Note Grill on Washington Street.
Just like the Carnival celebrated in New Orleans and other cities along the Gulf Coast, Mardi Gras isn’t just a day. It’s a season in which people decorate their homes and yards, just like they do during Christmas and Easter.
The 2016 Durham season started with a kick-off party Saturday night at The Blue Note Grill.
Durham Mardi Gras sponsor Abita, a Louisiana brewing company, will host a crawfish boil at the James Joyce on Jan. 28, among other events in which cover charges will benefit Durham’s Fat Tuesday celebration. Other organizations also typically plan related events leading up to Feb. 9.
People who want to participate in the Mardi Gras parade should just gather a krewe, register by Feb. 8 and come out, said Kathy Violette, president of the Durham Mardi Gras Inc. Krewe that want to parade with a vehicle need to register by Feb. 5.
If you don’t want to create your own krewe, then you can join an existing one, said Westfall.
The League of the Tutu is open to new members, she said, and they have a lending library with about 50 tutus.
“It’s easy to participate,” Westfall said. “Don’t be afraid to be off the wall. Just come down.”
Feb. 9 parade schedule
6-6:30 p.m.: Meet at CCB Plaza, 201 N. Corcoran St., check in and lineup.
6:45 p.m. Opening ceremony
7 p.m. Parade
7:30 p.m. Parade ends at Motorco, where the first of many bands at different venues will play.
Keep up with the Durham Mardi Gras events, register a krewe, make a donation or sign up to volunteer at http://www.durhammardigras.com/.
Why is Mardi Gras (Feb. 9) so early this year?
Mardi Gras Day is determined by when Easter falls each year. Mardi Gras always falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.