No one really knows where or when the custom of Mardi Gras began... and there are those who don't much care either! Nevertheless, it's been traced all the way back to the Romans, whose pagan orgies were held during the spring season. Today, Mardi Gras is celebrated around the world, but no one does it like New Orleans... the City that Care Forgot! New Orleans' premiere party season is irresistibly fun and vibrant for those lucky enough to experience it. While Mardi Gras is full of history, it's also more than a tad "sassy" and to fully understand it, it's necessary to understand New Orleans... how it hums during the day and sings at night... all the way back as early as 1718!
The French in New Orleans were having private masked balls and what many would call "wild parties" in 1718, but when the Spanish government took over, parties and street dancing were banned. Oppression didn't sit well in New Orleans, but it took the Americans to restore the right to party in 1827 as they finally ascended to power in the port city. During the 1850's, the city's elite and their elegant Mardi Gras parties were quite a contrast to the wild partying and near-rioting in the streets. It was soon clear that all celebrations were in danger of facing yet another ban.
In 1857, a group of men formed a secret society called the Mystick Krewe of Comus. They knew that Mardi Gras could be preserved with planning, organization, and management of the celebrations. Comus planned the first parade around a theme and used flambeaux (lighted candles) to light the procession. The Krewe of Rex was formed to entertain the visiting Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia... but since the Americans had no royalty to properly welcome the Grand Duke, the men in Rex created a King "for the day." In this manner, the Grand Duke was royally received. They secretly anointed one of their own to be the King of Carnival and to this day, most parades keep their King's identity a secret until parade day.
Typical Mardi Gras organizations have historically formed what is known as a "krewe." The krewe names their parade after a particular mythological hero or Greek god and the ranking structure is often a parody of royalty: King, Queen, Dukes, Knights and Captains...or some variation on that theme. More established Krewes allow membership by invitation only and now, years after the first Mystic Krewe of Comus was formed... "mega-parade Krewes" now exist, complete with their own personalities, agendas and over-zealous members!
Still, few in the ghetto felt they could ever participate in the typical New Orleans parade. Historically, slavery and racism were at the root of this cultural separation. Nevertheless, the black neighborhoods in New Orleans gradually developed their own style of celebrating Mardi Gras and their own"Krewes" named for imaginary Indian tribes according to the streets of their ward or gang. The MARDI GRAS INDIANS named themselves after native Indians to pay them respect for their assistance in escaping the tyranny of slavery. In turn, local Indians would accept runaway slaves into their society when they made a break for freedom. This support has never been forgotten!
Unfortunately, Mardi Gras was often used to settle scores and for many Mardi Gras Indians... it was a violent day! The police were usually unable to intervene due to the general confusion surrounding the Mardi Gras events in the city, where the streets were crowded and most everyone was masked. This violence kept many families away from the "parade," and created a great deal of worry and concern for a mother whose child wanted to join the "Indians." Today when two Mardi Gras Indian tribes pass one another, you will see a living theater of art and culture. Though each tribe's style and dress is on display...the manner is now friendly and competitive. Instead of the violence of old, they now simply compare one another's art, detail and craftsmanship.
The greeting of the Big Chiefs of two different tribes often starts with a song, chant, ceremonial dance, and a threatening challenge to "Humba." Both chiefs bow and pay the other respect. The retort is a whoop and equally impressive song and war dance with the reply, "Me no Humba, YOU Humba!" No longer a day to "settle scores," violence has become a thing of the past. It is now Mardi Gras tradition and practice to simply compare tribal song, dance and dress with other tribes as they meet throughout the day. Each Indian has invested thousands of hours and dollars in the creation of his suit, and is not willing to risk ruining it in a fight. This tradition, rich with folk art and history, is now appreciated by historical societies around the world. It is a remarkable and welcome change from the past.
BACCHUS is the most innovative and imitated krewe this century. Bacchus was formed in 1968 and designed to put spark back into a celebration deemed "faded" by many. The krewe's large signature floats, Rendezvous supper dance with Las Vegas-type entertainment, and national celebrity monarchs featured each year are just a few of the tradition-breaking moves that set the Krewe of Bacchus apart from the very beginning! Celebrities such as Raymond Burr, Bob Hope, Dom DeLuise, Charlton Heston, William Shatner, Kirk Douglas and Dick Clark have portrayed Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. The parade's more than 25 floats include several super floats such as the Bacchagator, Bacchasaurus, and Baccha-Whoppa.
The Krewe of Bacchus holds its parade on the Sunday before Mardi Gras Day ... drawing crowds of several hundred thousands every year. The Bacchus parades through the streets of New Orleans with its massive floats, marching bands, and ceremonial escort groups... ending up inside the Convention Center for a black-tie Rendezvous party of over 5000 guests from all over the country, featuring celebrity entertainment both before and after the parade.
There were those who still liked to poke a little fun at the ever-growing event. The blacks of New Orleans mocked the snobbishness and exclusivity of Rex with their own down-home parade. In 1909, William Storey wore an old tin can for a crown instead of the more elaborate crown Rex used. William was crowned "King Zulu" that year, and was proceeded by "Provident Prince" and the "Big Shot of Africa." The idea for this Krewe came from a theatrical skit entitled, "There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me," about the Zulu Tribe. According to lore, that is how ZULU was born.
The group wore raggedy pants and had a Jubilee-singing quartet in front of and behind King Story. His costume of "lard can" crown and "banana stalk" scepter was well documented. 1915 heralded the first use of floats, constructed on a spring wagon, using dry good boxes. The floats were decorated with palmetto leaves and moss and carried four Dukes along with the King. That humble beginning ultimately gave rise to the lavish floats we see in the Zulu parade today.
Zulus were not without their controversies, either. In the 1960's during the height of Black awareness, it was unpopular to be a Zulu. Dressing in a grass skirt and donning a black face were seen as being demeaning. Large numbers of black organizations protested against the Zulu organization, and its membership dwindled to approximately 16 men. From that lowest point, Zulu has grown tremendously over the years. This continual growth is credited to the members for their love, loyalty and dedication.
Donning black face and white eyes is another irresistible pun of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club. Zulu's original parade would meander from barroom to barroom in junky cars and wagons instead of floats. If you wanted to catch the start of the parade, you had to find the bar that was extending hospitality to King Zulu. This Krewe didn't establish a parade route until recently. Today, Zulu, with its beautiful modern floats, is one of the more popular parades of the season! They are also known for their unique, hand-decorated coconut throws, or Golden Nugget as they are often called... but only a fortunate few are lucky enough to get them!
The earliest reference to the coconut appears to be about 1910 when coconuts were given from floats in their natural "hairy" state. Some years later there is a reference to Lloyd Lucus, "the sign painter," scraping and painting the coconuts. This, in all likelihood, was the forerunner to the beautifully decorated coconuts we see today. With the proliferation of lawsuits from people alleging injury from thrown coconuts, the organization was finally unable to get insurance coverage in 1987. So that year, the honored tradition was suspended. After much lobbying, the Louisiana Legislature passed SB188, aptly dubbed the "Coconut Bill," which excluded the coconut from liability for alleged injuries arising from coconuts handed from the floats. On July 8, 1988, then-governor Edwards signed the bill into law. Through much adversity, the Zulu organization has persevered and is very much alive today.
But Mardi Gras is much more than its colorful Krewes... even the anticipation of the merriment is palpable, but once Mardi Gras begins, the city is held captive by a collective over-excited frame of mind! To some, it's ALL about catching a strand (or two, three, four... more!) of beads... but to others, it's getting dressed up in costume, or going to a Ball that makes Mardi Gras the one-of-a-kind event it is. Mardi Gras always falls on the Tuesday that is 46 days before Easter... always the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the start of Lent... but that actually marks the end of all the partying. It's the season of revelry before Mardi Gras that draws the big crowds and one name says it all... Carnival! Carnival officially begins on January 7, which is known as Twelfth Night or King's Day, so named because it falls 12 days after Christmas on the day the Wise Men are said to have reached Bethlehem. By now it should be clear that the world's biggest party is very rooted in religion... so, Amen to that and Hallelujah!
Carnival celebrations fall into two categories: public and private. The private celebrations are balls held one Krewe or another. Some Krewes are open to everyone while others are very exclusive and made up mostly of FONOF (fine old New Orleans families). The public celebrations take the form of parades, sponsored by the very Krewes that hold the balls for members only... MardiGras.com is the best place for this kind of up to the minute information.
If you're not aware by now, Mardi Gras has its own colors: purple, green and gold, chosen long ago in 1872 by that year's Rex of Mardi Gras. In 1892, the colors were given meaning-purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power. There is also a "food" that goes hand-in-hand with Mardi Gras and Carnival Season: the king cake. Sweet, roll-like dough is shaped into a big circle, cooked and brushed with purple, green and gold sugar or icing. Then a plastic baby, representing the Christ child, is tucked inside. Whoever gets the piece of cake containing the baby must, by tradition, provide next year's king cake... (and of course, avoid choking)!
Reach for the beads... grab a coconut and love a parade or two! Soak in the atmosphere all around as you realize you're part of the biggest party in the world! Then send a postcard home saying, "Wish you were here!" See you in New Orleans... it's the ONLY place to be in Mardi Gras season!