Have a joyful Twelfth Night with the Phunny Phorty Phellows or Krewe of Jeanne D'Arc

New Orleanians are accustomed to pleasant conflicts as Mardi Gras comes to a climax: Uptown or downtown? Street clothes or masked? Rex parade or barbecue under the Claiborne overpass?

phunny phorty phellows new orleans.JPGPhunny Phorty Phellows Twelfth Night at the Willow Street Car Barn Wednesday January 6, 2010. Photographer George Long.

For the past few years, however, the conflicts have begun on Twelfth Night -- Jan. 6 -- with revelers forced to chose between two parading krewes.

Since 1982, the Phunny Phorty Phellows -- a krewe that has existed in various forms since the late 1800s -- have kicked off Carnival with a wild ride along the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line.

"Twelfth Night used to be quiet -- a time for private balls and family gatherings -- and that's why the Phellows decided to do something public to celebrate the start of Carnival, " said the captain of the anonymous group. "It's gotten to be a bigger night, and our only regret is that we don't get to see the competition."

The Phellows, which also include women, assemble at Willow Street and Carrollton Avenue at 6:30 p.m. They roll from the Uptown streetcar barn at 7 p.m., with 70 masked riders, the Storyville Stompers brass band and a very patient RTA driver packed into a single car. The trip takes them to Canal Street and back. Watching the Phellows board the streetcar and decorate it has become a holiday tradition for many, while other fans cheer the group's passage at stops along the line.

The Krewe of Jeanne D'Arc offers a French Quarter alternative to the Phellows Uptown ride. Now in its third year, the parade assembles at Conti and Decatur streets around 5:30 p.m. -- just look for the young girl dressed as St. Joan on horseback and marchers in medieval garb.

"You can do anything you want in New Orleans as long as you don't need money to make it happen, " said parade organizer Amy Kirk. "Lack of funding is the mother of invention. And there is an openness among the people who usually say 'no' in other cities, from the police to the old guard Carnival types. Here everyone is in the same boat, trying to figure out how to stay in New Orleans and survive. "

The group rolls at 6 p.m. It crosses much of the French Quarter on Chartres Street, and ends at Joan of Arc's golden, equestrian statute at Decatur and St. Phillip streets. The krewe distributes candles, matches and swords to parade-goers, and invites them to join the candlelit march that honors the martyred French heroine on her birthday. Bring a king cake to share at the parade's end -- it's traditional.

Kirk, 40, moved to New Orleans in 2004, after a career as a playwright and puppeteer in New England and San Francisco. She worked in local radio, got married, marched with the Pussyfooters, had a baby -- and currently serves as marketing director for the French Market.

She began with the idea of organizing a conference or film festival honoring Joan of Arc, but the idea morphed when she learned that Joan of Arc was born on Epiphany.

"To me, Carnival is street theater -- and parades are a beautiful, simple, public way to celebrate the things that are important to us." Kirk said. "Joan of Arc has always been a special heroine for me -- and I discovered that I'm not alone. This parade keeps getting bigger and changing in an unforced organic fashion."