It's That Time Of Year Again
Did you think any of you, my faithful readers, were going to get past February without some bit of information about Lent, Easter, Ash Wednesday, Paschal Moons, Lupercalia, and whatever else I could find out about whatever goes on from Twelfth Night to Easter Sunday? Well, Ol' Leo C is at it again, and this February we will focus on Mardi Gras, usually pronounced (Maw-Dee Graw) by all my Northern, Yankee, Redneck, buddies.
The word Mardi Gras and the celebration are French in origin dating from the middle ages. Many think the French celebration developed from the Lupercalia (pagan rituals) of ancient Greece and Rome. The Catholic Church's observance of Lent brought the celebration to the Christians as a pre-lent feast called Boeuf Gras. Explorers and settlers brought this observance with them to New Orleans and Mobile. The celebration has evolved and grown since then.
Technically speaking, Mardi Gras (meaning Fat Tuesday) refers to only one day, the day before lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The entire season is called Carnival. Mardi Gras is a lively, colorful celebration held on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins. The date of Mardi Gras depends on the date of Easter. Mardi Gras takes place at the end of a long carnival season that begins on January 6, or Twelfth Night. It is celebrated in many Roman Catholic countries and other communities. The term 'fat Tuesday' may have arisen in part from the custom of parading a fat ox through French towns and villages on Shrove Tuesday.
Mardi Gras day in 2004 is February 24th. It is always 47 days before Easter, the day before Ash Wednesday, the 40 days of Lent and the 6 Sundays during Lent.
Mardi Gras probably goes back to an ancient Roman custom of merrymaking before a period of fast. In Germany Mardi Gras is called Fastnacht. In England it is called Pancake Day or Pancake Tuesday. French colonists introduced Mardi Gras into America in the early 1700's. The custom became popular in New Orleans, Louisiana, and spread through several Southern States. Mardi Gras is a legal holiday in Alabama and Florida and in eight parishes (counties) of Louisiana. The New Orleans celebration is the most famous. But Biloxi, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama, also celebrate Mardi Gras.
The colors of Mardi Gras (purple, green and gold) symbolize Justice; Faith; Power. Throwing from the floats began sporadically in the 1800's. These were often bonbons and other simple treats. People in the crowd sometimes threw small bags of flour, as a practical joke, which would burst on the float, when they hit. Doing this today will land you in Jail, if caught or somebody tells. Throws evolved from just candy, into whistles and other tiny trinkets for the children. Today, adults enjoy many of the throws more than the children. The most desired throws are those with the Krewes or Mystic Societies' emblem and theme printed on them, such as cups and doubloons, and oh yes, and BEADS!. In Mobile, the most crowd pleasing throw is the Moon Pie, and in New Orleans, the most prized throw is the Zulu coconut. The throws give a Mardi Gras parade an exciting interactive experience, instead of just watching the parade.
Mardi Gras's beginnings are in Europe, particularly France. In North America Mobile and New Orleans share many "Firsts" in the history of Mardi Gras. Which city deserves the most credit depends on who you ask the question. Records from the late 1600's and early 1700's are incomplete, obscure, and sometimes disputed by historians. But, the first observance of Fat Tuesday in the United States occurred in Mobile in 1699 with the founding of the Point du Mardi Gras site. However, this was not the sole reason, as many of the first organized functions (such as themed float parades and a ball with the same theme) began in Mobile.
Now, for those who say, hey hold on there, that Point du Mardi Gras is in Louisiana. Well, yes it is, NOW! But, so was Mobile, THEN! This was the time that Louisiana was a territory of Louisianne which stretched from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Canada and it was owned by France and Spain at various times before that area became part of the United States.
The Cowbellion de Rakin Society (CdRS - 1831) started these traditions with the very first Mystic Organization. The CdRS held a parade in New Orleans, giving the city its first taste of a real themed float parade. Several members left the CdRS (and Mobile) and moved to New Orleans. These 6 men formed New Orleans' first organized krewe, the Mystik Krewe of Comus, in 1857. Since then, New Orleans' celebration has exploded in size and has often been the first to start. The Mystic Krewe of Comus even invented the many things that are standard today. Both cities deserve lots of credit, each borrowing and improving on the others beginnings through the years. Wasn't Mardi Gras celebrated in New Orleans before the Mystic Krewe of Comus? Yes it was! The Creoles celebrated Mardi Gras as did others, well before the Comus organization was founded. Balls, parties, and some street parades of a different nature were held during those years.
Creoles celebrated Mardi Gras in the back streets of the city long before the float parades debuted. Long processions of horse drawn carriages snaked through the city each season with parties going from house to house. Most people then simply took their celebrations and set about roving the streets. Only when the revelry in parts of the city got out of control did the city officials call for its end. Over time and because the city has a laid back attitude a lot of things that were over looked then, are just plain, "Hard to Stop" now! Even Playboy, Inc has gotten into the act and local authorities have almost abdicated the power to put an end to it.
Almost all of the Mardi Gras Krewe parades begin with the King and Queen leading the parade. They are followed by many floats, which the members of the krewe ride on. The krewe members throw trinkets or "throws" to the crowds lining the streets. The throws can be doubloons with the Krewes insignia on them, beads, cups, etc. Many of these items become collectibles each year. The crowd scrambles for the throws while yelling "throw me something mister!"
Parades began to be presented as stories, mythological tales, and other themes in 1840 with the Cowbellion de Rakin Society's "Heathen gods and goddesses". The parade would tell the story or fable through the images on each of the floats, beginning with the title, depiction of events in the story, then a conclusion. Today, parade themes vary as much as you can imagine. A shortage of money requires many of the newer Mystic Societies to rent floats from the older ones (parades are very expensive). The founding traditions of the 1800's Mardi Gras are still strictly adhered to within the Order of Myths, a living piece of history.
Who or what was 'Joe Cain' and what does that have to do with Mardi Gras? When the Civil War ended, Joe Cain saw the need to raise the spirits of the people and helped to revive Mardi Gras in Mobile. In 1866, Joe Cain masked as Chief Slacabamorinico, a fictional character from a nation of Native-Americans (Chickasaw) that were never defeated in the Civil War (and never surrendered). Chief Slac paraded on Fat Tuesday along with the Lost Cause Minstrels and others. Joe Cain, a real person, (1832-1904) was initially buried in Bayou LaBatre, Alabama, and was moved to the Church Street Graveyard in 1967 (along with his wife). Historian Julian Lee Rayford petitioned to have his body moved there and organized the Joe Cain Procession, a parade (and full day of reveling) held annually on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. This event has sparked the Mobile celebration in recent years.
Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday" or "Shrove Tuesday" and is the day for parades, masking and parties. It was created as a period of merriment and celebrations to allow Christians to fatten up before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. It is also called "Carnival", which is Latin for farewell to the flesh. The New Orleans version of Mardi Gras came to North America from Paris where it had been celebrated since the Middle Ages.
In 1699, French explorer Iberville and his men came down the mouth of the Mississippi River and camped on the river's bank. Knowing Mardi Gras, March 3, was being celebrated in France, they christened their campsite 'Pointe du Mardi Gras' and the waterway- Bayou Mardi Gras. Early in the 1800s the First carnival organization was formed and named the "Mystic Krewe of Comus". A group of gentlemen got together and formed a secret Carnival society, to entertain friends and please the people of New Orleans with a parade. The word "krewe" was first used by Comus who wanted to give the club's name an Olde English flavor. "Krewe" is just a fanciful spelling of the word crew. Rex, the King of Carnival whose parade takes place on Mardi Gras day, held his first reign in 1872. His first cloak was purple with green rhinestones and his scepter and crown were gold.
Comus started the tradition of the "flambeaux" to light up their nighttime parade route, in the 1800s there were few city street lights. A flambeaux is a hand carried torch that were wooden shafts with rags soaked in kerosene and set aflame. Later, railroad flares were used, and today a few use a propane powered flambeaux. The older krewes refuse to change this tradition and still use the old torches. The "flambeaux carriers" dress in white robes and dance and strut along the parade route, holding the flambeaux and pick up coins thrown by people entertained by them.
"Lundi Gras" (Fat Monday) is the time both Rex and Zulu journey to the city by way of the Mississippi River on the Monday before Mars Gras day. The "Boeuf Gras" or fattened ox is the ancient symbol of the last meat eaten before the Lenten season. A live version was presented in the Rex parade from 1872 to 1901. A paper mache version appeared in 1959 and continues as one of the most recognizable symbols. Like any sub culture, Mardi Gras has its own distinct vernacular.
The Civil War interrupted carnival through the duration. Comus and other marching groups, along with the carnival balls, reappeared between 1866 and 1868, but tensions varied with the occupying Union forces and the Reconstruction government. However, when it was announced that Russia's Grand Duke Alexis was going to take in New Orleans as part of his tour of America and that his visit would coincide with Carnival in 1872, a group of leading businessmen and theatre designers quickly formed an organization calling themselves (which they remain, formally) the School of Design, to stage a carnival parade complete with floats, bands, and costumed marchers to honor the Grand Duke on Carnival day. The School of Design grandly proclaimed their monarch the King of the Carnival, and he became synonymous with the name of his parade: Rex.
Rex paraded during the day, presenting themselves for the Grand Duke's review at noon, whereas Comus had always paraded at night. By adding a day parade, a whole new dimension had been added to the celebration. Comus' first procession of floats in 1857 had captured the public imagination and had literally saved Mardi Gras from oblivion. Rex merely expanded this beyond any scope known, and the future pattern of the Carnival had been established.
The Krewes of Proteus and Momus joined the carnival in the early 1880s, and the krewes began a gentle rivalry to produce not only the most elaborate tableaux balls, but the most beautiful and popular parades on the streets; hiring professional float and prop builders (where previously everything they presented on the streets and at the balls had been fashioned and imported from France), costumers, theatrical designers, and prop-makers.
From 1890 onward, the number of parading and ball organizations has steadily grown; some existing only a short time, others having histories extending back decades and even a century and a half (in the case of Comus). Krewes had handed parade favors to certain individuals at selected points along their routes, but Rex began the practice of tossing beads and toys to parade goers in 1920. Every organization since has followed through with the practice and adapted each new trinket, with Rex introducing doubloons in 1960. Cups began to be thrown in the 1980s, along with the increasingly popular medallion beads.
What are the Krewes actually about? How did they start and how do they still flourish today? The krewes are the actual carnival society organizations. The membership pay in dues to maintain the society, finance the krewe's activities including parading, organizing and staging the carnival balls, and funding the construction of their costumes and props. Some krewes only stage their own carnival balls, since parading with floats is a mighty expensive proposition, and some groups prefer the more dignified celebration characteristic of the upper strata of society. It is not unusual, for example, for debutantes to be presented at the balls, and the older krewes are composed of some of the richest and most socially and politically connected families in New Orleans. To be even a maid at the ball of Comus, for example, is to have attained one of the highest social honors imaginable in New Orleans --the equivalent of the debs' ball in most other cities.
There are some 70 separate carnival organizations in the New Orleans metro area, 10 of which, at the least, have been in continuous operation for over 100 years. In addition, there are several marching organizations, such as Pete Fountain's Half-Fast Walking Club and the Jefferson City Buzzards, and the various Mardi Gras Indian tribes, which have been an Afro-American carnival tradition going back a century and having its roots both in the local voudoun religion and the long history of amity between black and Indians extending back to the days of slavery. These people will spend their days year round --every spare moment-- sewing together some of the most elaborate and beautiful Indian costumes to be seen anywhere; outfits which rival the splendor of the court costumes at any of the carnival balls.
Every Mardi Gras, they are to be found marching through the streets of the Treme neighbourhood, and photographs don't quite do them justice for the spectacle they present on Carnival day and on any other days they field a march during the year. The deaths of any of the chiefs of these groups are celebrated with full jazz funerals.
Of course, no discussion of black carnival can be complete without Zulu. In the days of Jim Crow, when blacks were shut out of all meaningful intercourse in white society, the black community proceeded to create societies and traditions of their own. From the turn of the 20th century, there had already been the Original Illinois Club, an organization which was not only the first major black carnival group to hold an annual ball, but also a venue to educate blacks in the etiquette of polite society. In 1916, a group of black businessmen and jazz musicians, along with working-class individuals, formed the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which existed in part to satirize white carnival and the whole structure of the traditional organizations.
Whereas Rex, in the old Lundi Gras tradition, arrived at the foot of Canal St. aboard a Coast Guard cutter to be handed the keys of the city at noon on the day before Mardi Gras, Zulu mocked Rex by having their king arrive on an oyster lugger docking at the downtown jetty of the New Basin Canal (filled in around 1956). They decked out in parody tribal dress, mocked the blackface makeup of the minstrel show entertainers by painting their eyes and mouths white, and after a while fielded deliberately crude floats fashioned out of junk and festooned with palmetto fronds, moss, and palm leaves. Their particular carnival favor became that signature favor of the Mardi Gras season, the Zulu coconut. Eventually, the parade became much more elaborate, fielding more traditional floats, though they fashion them less around the nominal theme and more around the continued mockery of the structure of carnival societies. The one and only time Zulu has ever had a celebrity king was when Louis Armstrong took the honor in 1949.
If you want to do more in-depth research on this topic, there are some excellent books on Mardi Gras and golden-age carnival float, invitation, and costume design by Henri Schindler, available from Pelican Books.
Also Robert Tallant's 'Mardi Gras As It Was'.
And Leonard V. Huber's 'Mardi Gras'.
Researched by: Leo C. Helmer