Chantelle Rytter at her home studio in Adair Park. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

After a long pandemic hiatus, the beloved Atlanta BeltLine Lantern Parade returns earlier than usual and on a new route. This year’s parade steps off May 21 on the Westside Trail, but you can expect the same music, laughter, cheering, and a sea of fantastical glowing creatures and puppets.

The 12th annual Lantern Parade will, as usual, be led by its creator and parade expert, Chantelle Rytter. With a deep love for the art form that ties back to her affection for New Orleans, she has made it her mission to bring the joy of parading to Atlanta. 

In college, Rytter was devoted to the theater. She directed, she wrote, and she acted. After graduation, she found herself at a bit of a loss, unsure of what her next steps would be. On a whim, she moved to New Orleans and quickly fell in love with the culture and traditions there. 

Chantelle Rytter leading the BeltLine Lantern Parade in 2016. (Photo by Steve Eberhardt)

“My first Mardi Gras there just spun my head around,” said Rytter. “It engages the whole town and shifts the vibe. It changes social boundaries.”

One of the magical elements of parade culture is the way it enables connection between strangers.   “We have a common calling to delight one another,” she said. 

The interactions between performers and bystanders might be short, but they are powerful. Just a moment of recognition, an exchange of beads, or a smile passed from one to another, can be enough to make an indelible impression on a person. Anyone can join the processional which makes these parades a unique outlet for community engagement. 

“It’s soul fun; the kind of fun that touches your soul,” said Rytter. “Collective joy –we need it.” 

Since its inaugural run in 2010, the BeltLine Lantern Parade has grown in strides. From an initial crowd of 400 to nearly 70,000 in 2019, it’s clear that the infusion of parade culture into this city has met a need. And it’s safe to say, the city has returned the love.

One of Rytter’s lantern creations. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

After getting married and moving to Atlanta in the late 1990s, she quickly found a sense of community in the city and developed some incredible friendships. In a nod to Mardi Gras and New Orleans, she founded the Krewe of the Grateful Gluttons in 1999. The group began parading in the Little Five Points Halloween Parade and organized a gnome march in 2018 in an effort to break the Guinness Book of World Record largest gathering of people dressed as garden gnomes. The Krewe is also a regular participant in the Inman Park Festival Parade.

The success of the BeltLine Lantern Parade put Rytter in demand to create similar events in other areas, including the Take It to The River Lantern Parade in Sandy Springs, Parliament of Owls Lantern Parade in Midtown, and the Hilton Head Island Lantern Parade, among others. 

Sitting in her Adair Park home that she shares with husband Steve Eberhardt (the photographer responsible for many of the most iconic shots of the parades), Rytter has hand-crafted hippos, skeletons, owls, as well as a giant replica of her beloved late cat. She finds fulfillment in the hands-on nature of her craft. New challenges like how to make lanterns float on water, how to make them articulate, and how to make these creations wearable and mobile are all significant challenges that she faces with curiosity, playfulness, determination, and talent. 

“Seeing the people you share a city with as playful volumes of light does the body good,” Rytter said. “The idea that you personally can contribute to the culture of your city. I love that.” 

Rytter in her backyard, which also doubles as workshop space. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

Isadora Pennington

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.