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A Short History of Mardi Gras

Let's start things off with this short history of Mardi Gras which comes from a book called How To Throw You Own Mardi Gras Party that I wrote with my wife Sweet Loretta back in 2002.
From the site: "Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday, is the last day of a season called Carnival. The Carnival season is characterized by merrymaking, feasting, and dancing. Mardi Gras is the culmination of festivities and features parades, masquerades, and, unfortunately, often drunkenness and shameless debauchery. Carnival is typically celebrated in Catholic countries of southern Europe and Latin America.  The excess of Carnival may not seem to have much in common with the austerity of Lent, but the two seasons are inseparable. The day after Fat Tuesday is Ash Wednesday; therefore, the end of Carnival is followed immediately by the beginning of Lent. Lent is a time of fasting and penance in preparation for Easter. Carnival, then, can rightly be seen as the indulgence before the fast. It is one last “binge” before having to give something up for 40 days.  In general, Mardi Gras revelers engage in a binge of sinning before a time of consecration to God. The celebration of Mardi Gras fosters the notion that you can do whatever you want on Fat Tuesday, as long as you show up in church on Ash Wednesday. It’s the bender before the benediction, and it’s utterly unscriptural."
Carnival, the riotous and bawdy festival celebrated across Europe and in the Southern region of the United States,  has been in existence almost since the beginning of civilization itself.  

Over five thousand years ago, Ovid, a poet of ancient Rome, wrote verse about a spring festival that was celebrated to ensure greener pastures and the forgiveness of sins. Greek priests would sacrifice a goat, cut its skin into whips and use them to lash the naked revelers as they danced.  This festival, known as the Lupercalia, evolved throughtout the centuries and spread from Greece to Rome and France, where the festivities became a bit more pleasant, yet still full of lewdness, debauchery and occasional violence. Many revelers, in order to conceal their true identities while behaving in an uncivilized manner, wore masks.  When Christianity took hold, around the the year 600, the Church was appalled at such displays of lewdness and impiety. However, the Church knew that it would be impossible to obliterate the annual celebration. Around this time, Pope Gregory made the dates of the Holy Days of Ash Wednesday and Easter fluctuate with the equinox. Realizing that since the season of Lent, a time when Christians fast and self-denial is practiced, could coincide with this spring festival of madness, he renamed it the Carnivale which literally means "farewell to the flesh." This ensured that the festival ended on the day before the solemnity of the Lenten season.

The traditions of this festival of public debauchery and costuming were eventually embraced across Europe, and as European settlers journeyed to America, it was only a matter of time before Carnival became part of the American cultural heritage.  On March 3rd, 1699, when the French settlers, led by the explorers Iberville and Bienville, made camp on the banks of the Mississippi River, it was Mardi Gras Day. The group of settlers held a small celebration at their campsite by the river and aptly named it Mardi Gras Point. An observance was also held in Mobile, Alabama in 1703. The French settlers in Alabama carried on the traditions from their homeland as did those who settled in Louisiana. The city of New Orleans was founded in 1718 and private Carnival celebrations were staged.  The earliest reference to Mardi Gras "Carnival" appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body. That year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans.

By 1743, the first Carnival Balls were held throughout the season.  When the Spanish gained control of Louisiana, they banned all festivities of the Carnival Season.  In 1823, not long after The Louisiana Purchase had made Louisiana a possession of the United States, the celebration of the Carnival Season was reinstated.

In 1830, in Alabama, a one-eyed man named Michael Kraft and his friends were celebrating Carnival in a restaurant in downtown Mobile. It was the last day of the Carnival Season. Following their dinner party, the tipsy celebrants "borrowed" farming equipment and coal wagons from a nearby business, quickly devised some makeshift costumes and began parading through the streets. This was the first Mardi Gras Parade ever held on American soil.

By 1837, unofficial parades were held in the streets of various southern cities. By 1872, the Krewe of Rex held their first official parade. The parade was in honor of the visiting Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. It is here that the official colors of Carnival were instituted. The Krewe of Rex chose the royal colors of the Romanoff family of Russia as their backdrop. This choice of colors continues to be used to this day. The colors are purple which stands for justice, gold for power and green for faith.

Legend has it that the custom of throwing Mardi Gras beads from parade floats started sometime in the 1880s when a man dressed like Santa Claus was cheered when he tossed some beads into the crowds along the parade route.​​​
In short order, other Carnival Krewes adopted this popular Mardi Gras tradition.
The Krewe of Rex was the first carnival krewe
to throw trinkets to the crowds during a street parade.
This event also marked the premiere of the official Mardi Gras song, If Ever I Cease To Love.

If ever I cease to love, if ever I cease to love
May the moon be turned into green cheese
If ever I cease to love

During the 1800's and 1900's, many Carnival Krewes came into existence; along with walking clubs and Social Aid and Pleasure clubs. These clubs existed for the purpose of parading, having fun and helping their communities through various charity efforts. In their earliest days, Krewes were dignified and very serious about their procedures, parades and the themes behind their parades. Majestic and historical themes were commonplace as the Krewes treated their subject matter with elegance to their celebrations. One of the first of these types of Krewes was the Zulu Krewe. Throughout the years, however, the newer Krewes took more of a tongue-in-cheek approach to all things Carnival.

In the early 1900's, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure club made its mark on Carnival.  Zulu was comprised entirely of working class black Americans.  In their parade, they mocked the snobbishness of Krewes like Rex and Comus.  In fact, their parade float was a comical caricature of the Krewe of Rex.  Instead of masking in the royal colors of Rex, the members of Zulu wore blackface.

Louis Armstrong was the official King of the Zulus in 1949
When the Zulu tradition began, the Zulu King wore a crown made out of an old can of lard as opposed to the bejeweled crown of King Rex.
The Zulu Queens were all men dressed in drag and the royalty of Zulu sported names like the "Big Shot of Africa."  Zulu was also the first Krewe to connect the marching band street jazz sounds of the black neighborhoods to the Carnival Season.  
The Zulu King arrives on his barge whereupon he will sit upon a throne on his gala parade float

Pictured above is an official Mardi Gras coconut that was thrown from a parade float in the 1980's!

In 1991, the New Orleans city council proposed an ordinance that would desegregate all Krewes. The battle that ensued raged over the course of the following year. Krewes such as Comus, Momus and Proteus declined to roll out their floats during Mardi Gras. Eventually, a compromise was worked out when legislation dictating that no Krewe could practice discrimination by gender was entered into law.  In the past couple of decades, there have been over sixty official Carnival Krewes parading in the greater New Orleans area.  Unofficial Krewes have numbered in the hundreds.  

Following the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and its surrounding areas in 2005, 
Mardi Gras briefly lost some of its intensity as
the city of New Orleans recovered from the storm's devastating impact.
From Wikipedia: "The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in late 2005 caused a few people to question the future of the city's Mardi Gras celebrations. Mayor Nagin, who was up for reelection in early 2006, tried to play this sentiment for electoral advantage[citation needed]. However, the economics of Carnival were, and are, too important to the city's revival. The city government, essentially bankrupt after Hurricane Katrina, pushed for a scaled back celebration to limit strains on city services. However, many krewes insisted that they wanted to and would be ready to parade, so negotiations between krewe leaders and city officials resulted in a compromise schedule. It was scaled back but less severely than originally suggested. The 2006 New Orleans Carnival schedule included the Krewe du Vieux on its traditional route through Marigny and the French Quarter on February 11, the Saturday two weekends before Mardi Gras. There were several parades on Saturday, February 18, and Sunday the 19th a week before Mardi Gras. Parades followed daily from Thursday night through Mardi Gras. Other than Krewe du Vieux and two Westbank parades going through Algiers, all New Orleans parades were restricted to the Saint Charles Avenue Uptown to Canal Street route, a section of the city which escaped significant flooding. Some krewes unsuccessfully pushed to parade on their traditional Mid-City route, despite the severe flood damage suffered by that neighborhood. The city restricted how long parades could be on the street and how late at night they could end. National Guard troops assisted with crowd control for the first time since 1979. Louisiana State troopers also assisted, as they have many times in the past. Many floats had been partially submerged in floodwaters for weeks. While some krewes repaired and removed all traces of these effects, others incorporated flood lines and other damage into the designs of the floats. Most of the locals who worked on the floats and rode on them were significantly affected by the storm's aftermath. Many had lost most or all of their possessions, but enthusiasm for Carnival was even more intense as an affirmation of life. The themes of many costumes and floats had more barbed satire than usual, with commentary on the trials and tribulations of living in the devastated city. References included MREs, Katrina refrigerators and FEMA trailers, along with much mocking of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and local and national politicians. By the 2009 season, the Endymion parade had returned to the Mid-City route, and other Krewes expanding their parades Uptown."

It's a small world after all!

Pictured above is a fella named Mike Burke
Mike was one of my housemates during my college years back in the 1970's
In recent years, Mike has become a true New Orleans legend 
and is mighty adept at celebrating Mardi Gras!
Here's some video footage of the Krewe of Rex parade circa 2011:
This 2006 Washington Post article describes how the true spirit of Mardi Gras continues to endure into the New Millenium.
"What's remarkable about Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the extent to which the entire city has institutionalized this defiant laughter, so that every class, race and condition shares it. In a noisy, messy, highly varied and inevitably imperfect way, Mardi Gras amounts to all New Orleanians reminding each other that they're all in this fate thing together. Nothing signals that more than the climax of Mardi Gras, just before it all ends tomorrow, when Comus, the symbolic king of New Orleans's vestigial old family aristocracy, and Rex, the "king of the people," ceremonially come together at the end of their krewes' elaborate balls at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium...But the point is that carnival isn't just about having a good time. It's about reCarnival is very much a cultural and psychological survival mechanism for almost all New Orleanians, black and white, rich and poor, and for the city as a whole. It's the great shared experience of perhaps America's most culturally diverse city -- a giant municipal block party in which each neighborhood, age and ethnic group acts out and shares with others its particular finger-at-fate coping mechanism.minding oneself that good times are a precious part of life -- not to be traded casually for an extra hour at the office or a fleeting illusion of power or significance."

"Joy of heart, good cheer and merriment are wine drunk freely at the proper time." 

The Bible, Sirach 31:27

Another one of the most unique aspects of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

is the culture of the legendary Mardi Gras Indian tribes.

Stay tuned for a post on the Mardi Gras Indians this coming Friday!

It's MARDI GRAS WEEK on the Rock & Roll is a State of Mind blog

Be Sure To Check Out Tomorrow's Post: It's Carnival Time: Classic Mardi Gras Tracks!



This post first appeared on Rock & Roll Is A State Of Mind, please read the originial post: here

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A Short History of Mardi Gras


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