Long before Mardi Gras arrived in Louisiana, it was celebrated
in many European Christian countries. The word carnival originates
from the Latin words caro (carnis) meaning flesh and vale, meaning
farewell. Literally, people would give leave of flesh. Most likely
this dates back to the pre-Christian Roman Bacchanalian feasts. The
celebration spread. It became associated with Ash Wednesday, the start
of the 40-day Lenten period. In France, it was popular to fatten up
a calf for a feast the day before Ash Wednesday called the Beouf Gras
(fatted cow), hence the name, Mardi (Tuesday) Gras (Fat).
Three hundred years ago on Fat Tuesday (Carnival day 1699)
Mardi Gras was "introduced" to Louisiana. Pierre le Moyne,
Sieur d'Iberville and their men set up camp on the west bank of the
Mississippi about 60 miles from where New Orleans would be founded.
In celebration of Carnival, the site was name Point du Mardi Gras
and the channel was called Bayou Mardi Gras (and who says these guys
lacked imagination?!). They remain the oldest designated sites of
NON Indian origins in the Mississippi Valley.
New Orleans was founded by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de
Bienville (we have streets in New Orleans bearing the names Iberville
and Bienville) in 1718. Mind you that this was 7 years after the first
Mardi Gras society was founded in Mobile, Alabama! Under the first
French rule, Carnival balls were held at Governor Grand Marquis de
Vaudreuil's (now really, just how many titles does one person need?)
lavish home. The Spanish came and were not thrilled with the raucous
masking, parading and ball stuff so, thanks to Governor Don Antonio
de Ulloa, the celebration was banned. It didn't meet with much success
as the proclamation was largely ignored. In the early 1800's the Bals
Masque were so popular that a law was passed to limit the carnival
season from January 1st to Mardi Gras day to keep everyone from celebrating
it all year long!
The 12th night after Christmas, January 6th, is the official
start of the Carnival season. It was the 12th night after the baby
Jesus was born that the Wise men visited bearing gifts. In the 1790's
Twelfth Night parties were very popular on Louisiana plantations.
In 1792, the first public ballroom (La Salle Conde) opened in New
Orleans. The following year, those pesky people in Mobile, The Spanish
Mystics had their first parade on 12th night.
Mardi Gras balls were Pre-Lenten cotillions. Plantation owners
would come to their town homes in New Orleans in November. Sugar cane
is cut and processed in October, if you have ever been around the
smell it is (ugh) very much like molasses (big surprise). It is very
heavy and just permeates the whole countryside. I think they came
into town just to avoid the smell! Mind you, the plantations were
miles a part from each other, as well as New Orleans and opportunities
to make love matches for daughters were slim. If your daughter did
not make a connection (or you failed to arrange a match, often a business
merger) during the season, it would have to wait until the following
In 1804, the first Mardi Gras crisis under American rule was
over whether to play French music or English music. Thankfully that
was resolved and the following year was the first Quadroon ball, but
1806 made public masking and most balls illegal AGAIN! There was a
reprieve for balls in 1823 and by 1837 we have the first documented
street procession. In 1827 it is said that the production at the Theatre
d'Orleans was so popular that it continued until St. Joseph's day!
(March 19) This continued until 1857 when Mardi Gras, as we know it,
was born. Thanks to some drunken guys from Mobile, the first Krewe
was born. The Mystik Krewe of Comus, 6 gentlemen costumed and masked,
took to the streets in two mule drawn floats. Their theme was "Signs
of the Times". The hallmark of the Comus Krewe was (and still
is) their biting political satire. Sadly, the Civil War cancelled
4 years of celebration.
The Twelfth Night Revelers introduced the grand march at their
masked ball in 1871, but more importantly the selection of the first
Queen by drawing a golden bean from a King Cake. Incredibly, in the
benchmark year, the introduction of throws came about by a man dressed
as Santa Claus on one of the floats! In the old days, throws were
glass beads, which have become highly prized collectors items.
Rex showed his regal head for the first time in 1872, with
the first daytime parade to salute the visiting Russian Grand Duke
Alexis. There will be more on him, as he was quite the rogue! Rex
and the King of Carnival are one and the same and he reigns over all
of Mardi Gras. The Rex Krewe gave us the official flag, colors (purple,
green and gold) and anthem for Carnival.
Momus holds its first ever parade this year as well.
official harbinger of the Carnival season is the King Cake. It is basically
an oval coffeecake that can be plain, cinnamon flavored or filled with
cream cheese or fruit. The top is sprinkled with stripes of purple,
green and yellow colored sugar and sometimes has icing drizzled on top.
In this cake is a hidden plastic baby. In the old days, it was made
from porcelain and one bakery here makes a different collectible porcelain
baby every year. Now the tradition is who ever gets the baby buys the
next King Cake. When you have grown up here or have lived here long
enough, you don't look forward to the aggravation of standing in the
bakery to get the next cake, so you learn to swallow the baby!
It has been told that the three colors of Mardi Gras on the
King Cake represent the three wise men and the baby is the Christ
child. The oval shape represents the coming of spring. I am a little
foggy on this point but I think it is the egg shaped thing.
Mardi Gras Balls start on Twelfth Night. The balls are the
debutante balls of parading and non-parading Krewes. A Krewe is a
Mardi Gras club. At some balls, the Krewe will present "tableaux"
or living pictures. The lights go out and when they come back on,
there are people posing as a living picture. It could be based on
a famous painting or a point in history depending on the Krewe or
theme. Some Krewes do skits, some Krewes don't do anything, but I
am getting ahead of myself.
Throws can be a myriad of "stuff" and I do mean
stuff! I parade in the afternoon with ladies so our throws are more
family orientated. We throw a lot of small stuffed animals, finger
puppets, rubber toys (snakes, bugs and stuff like that) and Frisbees.
We throw beads that are thematic, (we paraded on Valentine's day last
year and I threw heart shaped beads in purple, green and gold as well
as red and white) as well as Krewe beads with the theme and date on
them. Some of the most popular "catches" are useful.
Comus is the
oldest of the carnival krewes, but it is Rex who is "King of Carnival"
and rules the day. Until recently it was widely thought that Rex was
created to honor the visit of the Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff. The Grand
Duke was very fond of the burlesque star Lydia Thompson. He saw her
perform in Bluebeard in New York City. She sang the song, "If ever
I Cease to Love" and captured the rogue's heart. He was smitten
by her performance and extended his stay to include a trip to New Orleans
to see her perform again.
For 125 years, we have thought that the business leaders had planned
the first daytime parade to honor the Grand Duke, but this was not
true. They had planned the parade all along and took the opportunity
to capitalize on his visit. Alexis had already seen Lydia again 6
weeks earlier in Saint Louis and the song, "If Ever..."
was already extremely popular in New Orleans. The Rex promoter, as
well as Lydia's, took advantage of the Duke's visit, not to promote
the romance between the two, but to insure a full house at the theater
and the parade. The Duke was a no-show at the performance (he was
hanging out at the Jockey Club), however he did attend the parade.
He declined to sit on the "throne" that had been constructed
for him and instead reviewed Comus and Rex from an ordinary chair.
"If Ever I Cease to Love" became the official song of Rex
and they changed the lyrics to "May the Grand Duke Alexis ride
a buffalo in Texas, if ever I cease to love. Interestingly enough,
Alexis apparently had a great time in New Orleans as he went to see
Lotta Crabtree (where did they get these names?) at the dance hall
where she was performing. Lotta was considered Lydia's main competition.
Not only did the Grand Duke attend the show, he also presented Miss
Crabtree with a diamond bracelet! (Boy - those were the days!)
Also making their first appearance were the "official"
carnival colors of purple, green and gold. The Rex lieutenants are
on horseback and dressed in any one of those colors, boots, cape and
all. The Captain, who is in charge of the ball and parade, wears white
and gold. Later, in 1892, Rex's theme was "Symbolism of Colors"
where the crowd learned that purple was for justice, green was for
faith and gold was for power.
in the old line krewes was by invitation only and most have not accepted
new members for many generations. Sometimes if a gentleman gives up
his membership or dies, only one of his sons may take his place. In
1992 a city counsel woman named Dorothy Mae Taylor forced an ordinance
that all parading krewes must open their membership rolls. At one time,
membership may have been exclusionary, but now they were just full!
Women did not want to have men in their all female krewes and visa versa.
This became a very hot issue, dividing the city. No one was promoting
discrimination but no one wanted anything to change either. Three of
the oldest old line parading krewes, Momus, Comus and Proteus declined
to parade in protest of the city council's interference. Rex moved the
Queen's viewing stands to a hotel from the private Boston Club, where
she had been greeting her King for over 125 years.
This was an extremely unpopular decision in all circles. It took
away business from floatmakers, costumers, dressers, caterers, bands
and dress shops just to name a few. Through rescheduling and lots
of innovation by people in the city, other krewes have been formed.
The most popular one is Orpheus, a mixed gender krewe started by Harry
Connick, Jr. Many paraded for only a year or so and then disbanded,
usually because of a lack of funds. Proteus had decided to parade
this year after a seven year absence and while the ordinance no longer
requires women's krewes to include men (and visa versa), all membership
rolls have been opened to a certain amount of new members.
Comus still does not parade, but some members have taken to forming
a procession from Antoine's restaurant, ringing cowbells, to the Municipal
Auditorium for their ball. The cowbells are to honor the Cowbellion
de Rankin Society of Mobile, AL the krewe that started it all.
been many other krewes started since the inception of Mardi Gras. Endymion,
Bacchus and Orpheus are considered "Super Krewes" because
their many floats are immense and they are generous with their throws.
My husband, Bob and my sons belong to Bacchus. The krewe was named after
the god of wine. It was formed in 1968 by 12 businessmen trying to explore
different avenues for carnival. Bacchus became at first a club whose
ball was open to tourists (on of the founders was Pip Brennan from Brennan's
on Royal Street). It has become one of the most innovative and imaginative
krewe and the most widely imitated. Their floats are the largest ever
assembled and include the Bacchasaurus (a dinosaur with riders on the
top) and the King Kong family, (King, Momma and Baby). It has become
a tradition to toss beads into King's mouth. The three piece Bacchagator
is a tandem float that carries 100 riders and the Baccha - whopper,
a giant whale, made it's first appearance the year the aquarium opened.
Bacchus was the first krewe to have celebrities as kings, Jackie
Gleason, Dom Deluise, Bob Hope, John Goodman to name a few. It is
the only organization where the king is involved with designing his
costume. The parade has 25 super floats and is over 100 units (bands
etc). It ends at the Convention Center where the ball is held. The
men must wear their costumes or tuxedos, women ball gowns. As opposed
to the old line staid krewe balls, the outfits at Bacchus (mine included)
are as glittery and daring as you can get. Where you might look at
a dress and think, "Oh, I could never wear that!" for Bacchus
you think "Is it flashy enough?" A good portion of the ball
is spent walking around the ball room looking at other women's gowns.
Some of them
are incredibly tacky! The floats actually come into the ball and throw
to the "audience" then park on the outside of the area until
they have formed a circle.
Last year I had on a red, off the shoulder gown and Skylar threw
so many beads at me, the top slid down! Thank goodness I had the pearls
to cover me up! Iris is the woman's krewe I belong to. We are the
oldest all women krewe, formed in 1917 and the only remaining parading
all female krewe in New Orleans. We have 750 members. Our first parade
was in 1959 and our ball was the first ever to be televised. Iris
doesn't have wonderful floats, but there are lots of them. Since we
are a day time parade, many of our throws are geared to kids - stuffed
animals, rubber finger puppets, frisbees and other toys. We also throw
beads, pearls, cups and doubloons. Our ball is a traditional old line
ball, with tableaux.
Babylon was formed by Dr. Frank Oser, the grand father of a friend
of mine. It was formed in 1939 , and remains one of the 10 oldest
parading krewes in New Orleans. The membership is made up primarily
of doctors. One of the most interesting thing about the Babylon parade
are the "flambeaux". These are tall torches carried by African
Americans who are very adept at dancing, twirling and dipping with
the torch. The flambeaux is really a long pole with a large coffee
can type of container in the center filled with flammable liquid that
is funneled into several small lights across the top bar. This is
how the old carnival parades were illuminated in the old days. It
is an honor to be chosen to be a flambeaux carrier.