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Carnival History

Renee Kutcher

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 year.

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.

The 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.

Membership 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.

There have 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.