Joan of Arc Mardi Gras parade rolls through the French Quarter

Guided by her parade of supporters, voices and warriors, Joan of Arc helped to officially begin the 35 day countdown to Mardi Gras on Wednesday (Jan. 6). 

The French Quarter walking parade was one of two city events on Twelfth Night to help mark the beginning of Carnival. A big-but-comfortable crowd took advantage of the briskly pleasant weather to see Joan on her way as the Phunny Phorty Phellows had their own phun elsewhere. 

A woman is rarely one thing, and Joan of Arc was no exception. The parade, which is rife with symbolism, draws on each of the titles the Frenchwoman carried. Joan of Arc the Warrior, Joan the Leader and Joan the Martyr (among other Joans) made appearances in the unusual and artistic parade, led by various shepherds, angels and horses. 

The famous peasant-turned-saint was just a teenager when she led the French against an English siege of Orleans in 1429, a victory which helped push Charles VII to gain his French crown. Joan's modern-day representation was a teenager, too, with Ben Franklin High School student Margaux Schexnider perched atop a white horse and waving to her adoring fans along the route. 

The real Joan, however, was captured just a few years after the Orleans siege by English sympathizers and burned at the stake. 

As Consul General of France Gregor Trumel announced from the Historic New Orleans Collection on Chartres Street, where the parade paused for a ceremonial toast, if there was no Joan of Arc, there would be no Orleans. Without Orleans, there'd be no New Orleans.

Below Trumel, the hustle and bustle of the parade had slowed as a man dressed as an executioner made his rounds, pushing back the press of the crowd to leave space clear for the many Joans and their entourages. 

"You made me laugh," he chided one child, who had earlier knighted a kneeling Frenchman with a plastic sword in the short wait for the parade to arrive. "It's not easy to make an executioner laugh." 

Leading the krewe with Joan the Shepherdess for the first time was a group of local francophone schoolchildren, each dressed in the red skirts and pants of Joan's hometown of Domremy. They surrounded a giant cobalt birthday cake with golden letters, reminding onlookers that the French saint shares a birthday with the official start of Carnival (she'd be 604 this year, but a lady never tells her age). The children shyly approached their onlookers, handing cinnamon-flavored Fireball candies taped to papers bearing a seal for Joan.

Behind them, wooden sheep wrapped in fluffy wool rumbled along, making way for the sources of the voices Joan of Arc heard as a young woman. The voices, she'd said, were St. Michael, Ste. Margaret and Ste. Catherine, urging her to lend her support to Charles VII's cause in France.

Joan of Arc Mardi Gras parade 2016 The Joan of Arc Mardi Gras parade makes its way through the French Quarter in New Orleans on Wednesday, January 6, 2016.

In New Orleans on Wednesday, however, they appeared less chatty, each walking stately. A glittering gold and silver St. Michael held aloft a fluffy white cloud that looked as though it could have come from the sheep walking before him, and a ferocious dragon rose above Ste. Margaret. 

The whizzing of a bagpipe corps came next, beckoning forward the Lady's Knights Auxiliary and a Joan navigating the French Quarter streets on a sparkling wheeled pony. The Amazons, wrapped in animal furs and feathers, stepped to the beat of a steady drum to make the turn at Chartres Street., and a mysteriously six-legged golden horse clip-clopped before King Charles VII. 

Joan's trial, which infamously led to her being burned at the stake, found its representation, too, as a group of walking skeletons, each holding percussive instruments to clack gently like the skulls and bones they represented. 

"Three cheers tonight to the krewe of J'eanne D'Arc in its 8th year, and may it roll in the French Quarter on the Twelfth Night for centuries to come," an announcer called out over the crowd from the Historic New Orleans Collection balcony, alongside Trumel. "Three cheers for Joan of Arc!" 

Dressed in robes of silver crushed velvet, white satin and angel wings of white feathers, hands pressed neatly in prayer and lips in quiet smiles, St. Joan's doves walked quietly into the night.