Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Once Upon a Time - Mardi Gras

Once upon a time: Mardi Gras a look back at the history of it all
Published: Tuesday, February 22, 2011, 11:44 AM
Updated: Wednesday, February 23, 2011, 12:20 PM
By The Times-Picayune

SOURCE: The Times-Picayune's Mardi Gras 2011 Special Section.

It was the first time for the group of Mardi Gras newbies visiting from out of town. They headed down Bourbon Street surrounded by the kaleidoscopic shock-and-awe that is Fat Tuesday in the French Quarter.

One of them was costumed like a recent headline-making serial killer while her friend's elaborate outfit was designed to resemble a disgraced congressman who was caught with his pants down - literally - in an airport bathroom. Slightly more family-friendly attire included the group's small contingent dressed in "Mama Mia!" T-shirts, which broke into song at the drop of a hat.

Somewhere down the street a stereo was blasting "Carnival Time."

Two scantily attired men dressed up like cherubs hung on to a street pole while pretending to shoot "love arrows" in our direction.

And it wasn't even noon yet.


The ancient roots of Carnival can be traced to the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6 - aka Kings' Day or Twelfth Night (as in the 12 days of Christmas). In some places around the world Jan. 6 celebrates the arrival of the three wise men at the birthplace of the Christ child.

In New Orleans, Kings' Day simultaneously ends the Christmas season and fires the starting pistol for Carnival. This festival of fun finds its roots in various pagan celebrations of spring, some dating back 5,000 years. But it was Pope Gregory XIII who made it a Christian holiday when, in 1582, he put it on his Gregorian calendar (the 12-month one we still use today). He placed Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday, the final day of the Carnival season) on the day before Ash Wednesday, the first of Lent's 40 days preceding Easter. That way, all the debauchery would be finished when it came time to fast and pray.

Much of the first part of the Carnival season is made up of invitation-only coronation balls and supper dances hosted by private clubs known as krewes. The public portion of Carnival comes to life a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras when the krewes hit the streets, staging more than 60 parades in metropolitan New Orleans.

Mardi Gras arrived in North America with the LeMoyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville, in the late 17th century, when King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France's claim to the New World territory of Louisiana. The explorers found the mouth of the Mississippi River on March 3, 1699, Mardi Gras of that year. They made camp a few miles upriver, named the spot Point d'Mardi Gras and partook in a spontaneous party. This is often referred to as North America's first Mardi Gras. However, it is just as likely that the weary explorers were simply celebrating the fact that they were still alive.

A couple of decades later, Bienville founded New Orleans and soon Carnival celebrations were an annual event highlighted by lavish balls and masked spectacles. Some were small, private parties touting select guest lists, while others were raucous affairs open to the public. Collectively, they reflected such a propensity for frolic in the local citizenry that historian Robert Tallant wrote in his book "Mardi Gras" that "it has been said that the natives would step over a corpse on the way to a ball or the opera and think nothing of it."

Parades officially became a part of the festivities in 1838. On Ash Wednesday of that year, The Commercial Bulletin read: "The European custom of celebrating the last day of the Carnival by a procession of masqued figures through the streets was introduced here yesterday."


Over the next 20 years, Carnival became an increasingly rowdy event defined by drunkenness and violence. Eventually, churches and even the press began to call for its demise. In 1857, Mardi Gras found itself on the verge of death (having already been outlawed twice under Spanish and early American rule).

Then along came Comus, a group whose tale actually began 27 years earlier in the wee hours of Jan. 1, 1830 as a group of young men walked home from a New Year's Eve party in Mobile, Ala. They passed a general store featuring an outdoor display of rakes, hoes, shovels and cowbells. Making the kind of decision inebriated young men are apt to, they picked up the supplies and headed to the mayor's house where they caused quite a stir. An obviously patient man, the mayor invited them in, sobered them up and, according to historian Buddy Stall, made the motley krewe's leader an offer.

"Next year," hizzoner suggested, "why not organize yourselves and let everybody have fun?"

Led by Michael Kraft, the group called themselves the Cowbellion de Rakin Society. They paraded the following New Year's Eve and were so successful that the procession became an annual event.

Now, jump ahead to 1857 when New Orleans city leaders were on the verge of canceling Mardi Gras for good. Six Cowbellions now living in the Big Easy proposed forming a new private club to present a parade based on a theme, with floats, costumed riders and flambeaux (torch carriers who lit the way) - an orderly alternative to the chaos that Carnival had become. They chose the name Comus after the Greek god of revelry and coined the term "krewe." City leaders agreed and Comus was credited with saving Mardi Gras.

It wasn't until after the Civil War that the second Carnival krewe made its debut in 1870. The new group chose Jan. 6 to present its parade and ball, giving themselves the name Twelfth Night Revelers. Although they no longer parade, the Revelers ball (along with the Kings' Day streetcar ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows) marks the official start of the season.

During the Revelers first fete, an innovation was brought to Mardi Gras - a queen. Well, almost. After their tableau was presented, court fools carried out a giant king cake, the traditional pastry of the season, in which had been baked a golden bean. The plan was that pieces of cake would be presented to a group of young ladies and the one who found the bean would be crowned Carnival's first queen.

However, it seems that the fools were quite drunk and instead of presenting the cake, they either dropped it on or threw it at the young women. When the flour cleared, none of the appalled females would admit to having the bean. So, the first Carnival queen - wasn't, until the following year.

By 1872, new troubles were brewing in the city. Postwar carpetbaggery had reached its zenith and rumblings of revolt against the city government could be heard. As Carnival approached, fears of masked reprisals surfaced. Then came the diversion city leaders needed. News arrived that Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff Alexandrovitch, brother of the heir apparent to the throne of Russia, had accepted the city's invitation to Mardi Gras.

A plan was hatched.

A new krewe of prominent citizens from both the government and its opposition would be formed and a King of all Carnival would be chosen. The group would call itself the School of Design and its ruler was to be Rex.

What no one knew was that the duke had accepted because his visit would coincide with the New Orleans opening of singer Lydia Thompson's touring musical, in which she performed a nonsensical ballad called "If Ever I Cease to Love." (Supposedly, she had also sung the number privately for the duke during a Big Apple rendezvous.) When news of Thompson and the duke hit the local grapevine, public interest in the visit grew enormously.

Mardi Gras morning found the duke sitting in the official reviewing stand as Rex, atop a bay charger, led 10,000 maskers in a line more than a mile long. Among them were a number of bands, all of which broke into "If Ever I Cease to Love" as they passed the duke. Alas, the romance was ill-fated, but after 137 years, Rex remains King of Carnival and "If Ever I Cease to Love" is still the official song of the season.

The oldest parading African-American krewe is the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which first took to the streets in 1909. Not taking themselves as seriously as the staunch white krewes, the group dressed its first king, William Story, in an old sack and a crown fashioned from a lard can. A banana stalk was his scepter. Over the years, Zulu has become a perennial favorite and the krewe's gilded coconuts (painted gold and decorated with glitter) are one of the season's most prized throws.


By the 1950s, the truck parades, composed of floats built atop flatbed trucks (usually by families), had become well established. The late '60s saw the advent of the "superkrewes" Endymion and Bacchus, which broke with tradition by offering open memberships, larger floats and celebrity kings.

But Carnival faced new foes in the latter half of the 20th century. A 1979 police strike caused parades to be canceled in the city, just to see a number of them pop up in the suburbs. The City Council's anti-discrimination ordinance of 1988 called for krewes to either open their ranks or get off public streets. In response, three of the four oldest krewes - Comus (1857), Momus (1873) and Proteus (1882) - took their floats and went home. Rex remained and the other slots were filled. Proteus returned in 2000 and the following year became the first krewe to parade in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

In 2002, the 9/11 tragedy led to an extension of the NFL season, meaning that the Super Bowl set to be played in New Orleans the week before Carnival began, would now take place in the middle of the festivities.

With some maneuvering, a number of parades were rescheduled to accommodate the game.

Just a few years ago, with the city still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, the Carnival season was somewhat compacted but only a handful of krewes opted out of parading, most of whom returned for 2007.

And in 2010, as the Superbowl Champion Saints added spice to the already joyous season, Mardi Gras seemed more triumphant than the usual celebration of the end of winter.

Krewes shifted days, times and even halted parades so as not to conflict with the events.

Though not an obstacle, the Super Bowl sensation Saints were another layer of Carnival.

So, it seems that in New Orleans, no matter what the obstacle or the celebration, the Greatest Free Show on Earth has always found a way around it.

As Stall writes in "Buddy Stall's New Orleans," "It has been said that the people of New Orleans love Carnival and Mardi Gras parades to such an extreme that if a catastrophe were to occur and only two people survived, at the next Mardi Gras one of them would be in costume marching down the street, beating a drum and holding a banner, while the other would be standing on the side in costume, drinking a Dixie Beer and hollering, "Throw me something, mister!"

SOURCE: The Times-Picayune's Mardi Gras 2011 Special Section.

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