The History of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

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Knights of Revelry parade down Royal Street in Mobile during the 2010 Mardi Gras season.

The history of Mardi Gras is as fascinating as New Orleans itself. Surviving nearly every possible obstacle, this incredible celebration is stronger now than ever before

Even for those seasoned professionals whose earliest childhood memories consist of sitting on Daddy’s shoulders screaming “Throw me somethin’ mister” and dodging a barrage of beads, the origins of “The Greatest Free Show on Earth” may be just as elusive.

The Roots of Mardi Gras

The term “Mardi Gras” is French for Fat Tuesday. It is the culmination of the Carnival season, which begins annually on January 6, the Twelfth Night (the feast of the Epiphany) and ends at midnight on Mardi Gras. Carnival comes from the Latin “carnivale,” meaning “farewell to flesh,” and is the season of merriment leading up to the penitential season of Lent. According to renowned Mardi Gras expert Arthur Hardy, no one is quite sure when, where or how the celebration first began.

Many historians and scholars believe that the roots of Carnival can be found within the ancient rituals of the Greeks and Romans celebrating fertility and the arrival of spring. According to Hardy, possible ancestors include the Bacchanalia, Saturnalia and Lupercalia celebrations, which were orgy-like festivals held from mid-February to March and consisted of feasts, drinking and public performances and spectacles.

In the formative years of the Catholic Church, early Church fathers realized the difficulty of separating their new converts from their pagan customs and allowed the celebration of Carnival, but within the context of Christianity. “The church decided it would be easier to channel it [Carnival] into Catholicism, having it serve as the prelude to Lent,” Hardy said.

The modern Mardi Gras celebration we are familiar with has been celebrated since the Middle Ages. Mardi Gras came to America from France in 1699 when the French explorer Iberville and his men explored the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River region.

On March 3, Mardi Gras, Iberville and his crew set up camp in a location approximately 60 miles south of New Orleans and christened the area, Point du Mardi Gras. According to French historian Samuel Kinser at the University of Northern Illinois, the first sign of organized celebrations began in the 1700s with the popularity of masked pre-Lenten balls and feasts. It was in the 19th century that most of the staple traditions of the holiday originated. The public celebration in the early years of Carnival consisted mainly of masked revelers on foot and horseback until 1837 with the first documented organized parade in the city.

The Formation of Carnival Traditions

The violence that erupted at the celebration scarred Mardi Gras in the public eye, and the festivities were halted. In 1857, several New Orleanians who had paraded in a group in Mobile, Ala., came to the rescue by forming the historic Comus organization proving that Carnival could be fun, beautiful and safe. Comus coined the word krewe (pronounced crew) which has come to be used by all Carnival organizations in New Orleans. Comus began several other traditions including the formation of a secret Carnival society, presentation of themed parades and holding formal balls following its parade.

With a need for illumination along the parade routes, the use of flambeaux came onto the Carnival scene. Flambeaux are fueled torches that were traditionally carried by white-robed black men throughout the parade. The tradition of flambeaux carriers can still be seen in parades today, but now they serve more ornamental purposes. In 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers introduced the traditional king cake to the celebration. The organization presented these cakes with small golden beans hidden inside to debutantes in order to determine who would be the queen of their celebration.

The Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff came to visit the city in 1872. To commemorate the occasion, a parade featuring a king figure was held in his honor, giving birth to the first appearance of Rex, which soon became an international symbol of Mardi Gras. The Rex organization gave the city its first daytime parade, selected Carnival’s official colors: purple (justice), green (prosperity) and gold (wealth), and introduced an anthem “If Ever I Cease To Love.” Other historical organizations were also born in the 1800s including Momus (1872), Proteus (1882) and the Jefferson City Buzzards (1890).

Mardi Gras in the 20th Century

The formation of the Krewe of Zulu marked the beginning of the 20th century. This black organization originally made fun of Rex the king of Carnival. Its first king made his grand entrance into the city on an old fishing boat and reigned over his subjects with a banana stalk scepter and a tin can crown, mocking the grandeur of Rex’s Mississippi steamboat and ornate attire.

The celebration of Mardi Gras proved itself to be a powerful phenomena throughout this past century. It survived being canceled eight times due to a yellow fever epidemic, both World Wars and various protests. In 1972, parading was banned in the French Quarter and a temporary cap was placed on creating new krewes due to the lack of space. The era also saw the rise of 45 organizations and the demise of more than 36 others.

A city ordinance in 1992 spear-headed by then Councilwoman-at-Large Dorothy Mae Taylor requiring Carnival organizations to open their private memberships signaled the end to the city’s oldest crews of Comus, Momus and Proteus, who protested the ordinance by ending their long traditions of parading, while other krewes agreed to the city’s demands.

Innovations including larger, high-tech floats and public demand have led to the rise of the superkrewes such as Endymion, Bacchus and singer Harry Connick Jr.’s famed Orpheus. The 20th century also brought about the spread of Carnival and Mardi Gras festivities beyond New Orleans. Today, more than 50 Carnival organizations hold parades and/or balls in Orleans, St. Bernard, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes.

New Orleans isn’t the biggest city in the world, nor is it the most popular. So why has Carnival and Mardi Gras had such an impact upon New Orleans? “It’s not like cities such as Detroit and Chicago can just up and start one [a Mardi Gras tradition],” Hardy said. “Being a Catholic town has a lot to do with it…it’s just natural.”