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Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday – is the day before Lent begins. In 1512, the Butchers’ Guild of Paris created the tradition of leading a fattened ox, the “Boeuf Gras”, through the streets to celebrate the last feast before the rigors of Lent.
In its earliest form, Mardi Gras is probably linked to pagan rites celebrating the return of spring. Ancient Rome’s Lupercalia, a lusty fertility festival, was celebrated yearly on February 15. The young Catholic Church, unable to obliterate the pagan festivals, adopted and purified many: Carnival as a pre-Lenten celebration was born.
Pierre LeMoyne Sieur d’Iberville, arriving at the Mississippi River on Mardi Gras eve, 1699, named his encampment “Bayou and Pointe de Mardi Gras.” In the 1700’s, the French settlers continued to celebrate Mardi Gras.
Masquerades were regulated on a discretionary basis during the years Spain ruled New Orleans. Whenever the peace was threatened, a short-term police ban on masking was invoked. Balls, rather than parades, were favored. The Quadroon balls, known for their beautiful women, and most spectacular during Carnival, thrived during the end of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries.
Because of the French “Boeuf Gras” tradition, it is safe to assume that New Orleanians paraded before the newspaper accounts of 1837-38, which record the processions of maskers in decorated carriages, on horseback and afoot. Mention of the Mobile, Alabama Cowbellions as Carnival participants also appears in newspapers about this time.
By the 1850’s, troublemakers had invaded the ranks of the maskers and were tossing dirt, flour, and even lye at the spectators instead of the traditional dragees (sugar coated fruits and nuts) and bon-bons, leading to a city ordinance against the “throws” and a proposed ban on parading. While Mardi Gras parades were declining in quality, there were definite bright spots; the carefully planned 1852 parade by the Company of Bedouins is considered the finest prior to Comus.
The parades of 1855 and 1856 were especially bleak, but events were taking place that would vastly improve Carnival. In the early 1850’s, a number of individuals from Mobile moved to New Orleans. Some of them had been members of the Mobile Cowbellion De Rakin Society, the first parading New Year’s Eve club. They missed the New Year’s Eve parades back home, and after experiencing a few of the New Orleans Mardi Gras processions, decided to form a secret Mardi Gras club in New Orleans similar to Mobile’s New Year’s Eve organizations.
Led by Joseph Ellison and Thad Smith, they obtained costumes from the Cowbellions and the Strikers Independent Society (another Mobile club) for their new Carnival parade in New Orleans. Thus the Mistick Krewe of Comus was born, legitimizing New Orleans Mardi Gras parades. Attended by torch bearers, Comus rode on one float, Satan on another, and approximately 75 devil maskers cavorted on foot.
After the Civil War, during Reconstruction, the Twelfth Night Revelers (1870), Rex, and Momus (both 1872) were formed. Rex introduced daytime parading to Carnival. Ten years later, Proteus was organized, followed by the Jefferson City Buzzards (a marching club) in 1890. Zulu, a black krewe, originally a spoof of Rex, was formed in 1909.
Alla, Mid-City, Hermes, and the first truck parade, the Elks Orleanians, began in the 1930’s, and the first parading women’s krewe, Venus, preceded World War II. After the war, many new organizations, the majority from the suburbs, began parading. The number of major parades doubled and tripled, reaching a high of more than fifty.
In the early 1950’s, mules were phased out of float pulling, being replaced by tractors. 1960 saw the birth of a major new throw, the aluminum doubloon. Carnival 1969 was the inaugural parade of Bacchus, the first krewe to have jumbo “Super Floats” and a celebrity non-local King.
The krewe of Mardi Gras first used decorated paper cups as a throw in 1975. The next year, Alla introduced a decorated plastic cup, which for a couple of decades became the most popular throw. That cup was made by a local company, Giacona Container Corp.
1979 was the year of the infamous Orleans Parish Police strike, resulting in the cancellation of most major Orleans parades and the temporary move of others to the suburbs. Carnival recovered from this ordeal
Momus, Comus and Proteus stopped parading in the 1990’s, but continue to hold masked balls. Proteus returned to the parade route a number of years later. It is said that a number of Comus and Momus members ride in a relatively new parade, Chaos.
The 1990’s saw the diversification of throws, including a wider assortment of small toys, and a huge assortment of stuffed animals, and some new throws, including lighted beads. Doubloons have lost some favor, but still exist in small numbers. In the last few years, a number of krewes throughout the metro New Orleans area have stopped parading. The reasons are many, including a shortage of krewe members, and the high cost of krewe dues, throws, and parade insurance.
The new century saw a standardization of parade routes, with most krewes rolling down St. Charles Avenue. August 29, 2005 brought Hurricane Katrina, which severely impacted Carnival. The season was shortened by 20%, less parades rolled, the parades were shorter with less floats and bands. Many hotel rooms were not available.
Want to know more about the history and traditions of the New Orleans Mardi Gras? Read these fine books: Mardi Gras, by Robert Tallant (Doubleday & Co.,1949); New Orleans Masquerade: Chronicles of Carnival, by Arthur Burton LaCour (Pelican Publishing Co.,1952); Mardi Gras! A Celebration, by Mitchell Osborne and Errol Laborde (Picayune Press, 1981); The Mistick Krewe, by Perry Young, (Carnival Press, 1931); and If Ever I Cease to Love: One Hundred Years of Rex, by Charles Dufour (School of Design, 1970).