Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is celebrated by costumed revelers, krewes, floats and flambeaux, parades, and masked balls.
No American city is more closely identified with a holiday celebration than is New Orleans with Mardi Gras. French for “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras marks the last day of the indulgent Carnival season before Ash Wednesday and the solemnity of Lent in the Catholic tradition. Although parades, balls, and other spirited rituals are observed every winter from Galveston, Texas, through Louisiana’s Cajun country and across the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Mobile, Alabama, it is in New Orleans that Mardi Gras grew from a modest local event to a globally recognized phenomenon that draws locals and tourists to the streets by the hundreds of thousands. The spectacle has long been recognized throughout the world as a cultural symbol of New Orleans.
Although Mardi Gras is a single day, the terms “Mardi Gras” and “Mardi Gras season” may sometimes be loosely used to refer to the weeks-long period properly called “Carnival.” The season, grounded in religious observances from the Christian calendar, begins every year on January 6, also known as Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, and ends on Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday. Many Carnival organizations, known as krewes, hold elaborate, ceremonial balls, while bakeries and supermarkets do a booming business in king cake, the large, seasonal pastry with a plastic baby hidden inside. But it is the lavish parades for which New Orleans’s Mardi Gras is best known. The city’s custom of parading began with the Mistick Krewe of Comus in 1857; the word “krewe” was coined by the Comus organizers as a quaint variation of “crew” and is pronounced the same as the original term. The Rex parade, first staged in 1872, eventually became the centerpiece of Mardi Gras festivities, its monarch dubbed “King of Carnival.” In recent decades, revelers have primed for the traditional Fat Tuesday holiday celebration with parades on the preceding three days by the city’s outsized “superkrewes” featuring celebrity guests, massive signature floats, and copious amounts of throws. The popularity of the superkrewe parades—Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpheus, on the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday before Mardi Gras, respectively—transformed what used to be a more localized holiday on Fat Tuesday into four days of massive street parties along the city’s mostly family-friendly, miles-long parade routes. The long holiday weekend also results in a four-day bacchanal of heavy drinking and risqué behavior along Bourbon Street that attracts voyeuristic attention from tourists and the media and tends to overshadow the deep-rooted cultural traditions taking place beyond the French Quarter.
The Development of Mardi Gras
When European colonialists came to the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they brought the observance of Mardi Gras with them. In French Louisiana, the first recorded celebration of the holiday took place on March 3, 1699, when men accompanying explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville partook of festivities south of present-day New Orleans along the banks of the Mississippi River at a location they named Point du Mardi Gras. After the founding of New Orleans in 1718, colonists continued to celebrate the holiday there in the eighteenth century, although little is known about the nature of the observance and its development. By the nineteenth century, the New Orleans penchant for balls and dancing carried into the Mardi Gras occasion, but, more importantly, rowdy bands of revelers were taking to the streets and causing what others considered lawless disruptions. In the nineteenth century, there were calls to suppress the holiday; instead, measures were taken to channel the celebration into more controllable forms that influenced the modern version of Mardi Gras.
Such reforms were not undertaken by French Catholics, but rather by Anglo-Saxon “Americans” who had come to New Orleans more recently. Some of them were familiar with a tradition of parading in Mobile, Alabama, which like New Orleans has a French heritage. They created New Orleans’s first Mardi Gras organization—the Mistick Krewe of Comus—which in 1857 put on a parade, harnessing the carnival spirit into an organized, grand, decorous occasion. This proved to be a popular success and continued throughout the rest of the century, with only an interruption of the celebration during federal occupation of the city during the Civil War (1861–1865), after which several other parading organizations came into existence. These groups became the dominant force in Mardi Gras, and the parades were the primary public activity. In the early years, parades were always held at night, illuminated by torches known as flambeaux. Though electric lighting was added to floats in the mid-twentieth century, some night parades in New Orleans still adhere to tradition and employ flambeau carriers.
Founded in 1872, the Rex organization put on what became the principal day parade on Mardi Gras; the organization established purple, green, and gold as the colors of Carnival and introduced the jaunty “If Ever I Cease to Love” as the holiday’s anthem. The organization also created the fiction that its monarch, Rex, chosen annually from among members, was the ruler of the festivities and of the city for a day, and the ritual arrival of Rex in the city via a boat on the Mississippi River became a central event of the celebration. In a practice dating back to this period, Carnival organizations—though generally run by a powerful official usually called the “captain”—annually select kings and queens as symbolic rulers of the group. This practice might reflect lingering royalist sentiment or may go back to the selection of a king of fools in the Middle Ages. The ritual food of Mardi Gras, a coffee cake-like confection, is in fact called “king cake” because in former times, the party guest who received the slice containing a bean or trinket—now, usually a tiny plastic baby doll—was designated the king or queen at Carnival social events.
The Modern Form of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras has constantly undergone changes—sometimes minor, sometimes major—so it is difficult to characterize the celebration over time. However, for much of the mid- to late twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, the season of celebration maintained certain features: parades with elaborate floats, mounted riders, marching bands, and dance groups attracting large crowds along routes that typically extend for at least five miles. These are participatory parades, in that float riders toss “throws” (beads, plastic cups, doubloons, and other trinkets) to the clamoring crowds. Krewes traditionally host a tableau ball following their parade or on another date during Carnival; some krewes host balls but do not parade.
The parades involve a great deal of planning and expense, borne by the members of the parading group. Such a parade will include a number of carefully constructed floats ridden by costumed krewe members and decorated according to a theme (typically of a historical, mythological, or satirical nature). Other, more modest organizations—such as the Box of Wine krewe, the Jefferson City Buzzards, and Krewe du Vieux—engage in parades on foot, some in the wake of a major parade and others following their own routes on their own designated days or nights during Carnival. Costuming (locally called “masking”) on Mardi Gras is an integral part of the celebration, emphasizing that the holiday is a time when people are licensed to behave in out-of-the-ordinary ways by taking on fantastic identities—though many participants wear casual street clothes to the parades. Major Carnival parades were banned from the French Quarter in 1971 due to the dangers of overcrowding and potential damage to historic buildings from heavy float traffic, but on Mardi Gras, the neighborhood still becomes the locus for huge crowds in the streets and bars, much drinking, and edgier aspects of the celebration.
Carnival and Social Structure
Carnival and Mardi Gras both reflect and exalt particular echelons of New Orleans society. Membership in some organizations is exclusive and considered socially prestigious; to become an important player in the workings of a krewe (to be chosen king or queen, for example) also carries prestige. Krewe members invite nonmembers to their balls; merely being invited to some balls may convey high status. The city’s elite use Mardi Gras krewes as a focus for socializing and networking. Mardi Gras balls are integral to the debutante system, whereby eligible young women are “introduced” to “society,” a tradition that dates back to the nineteenth century. Historically some racial and ethnic groups as well as women were excluded from participation in certain aspects of Carnival, thus drawing lines of distinction between presumed social levels and gender roles.
Due in part to the social exclusion practiced by the elite, “old-line” krewes, local residents have created new organizations and new venues for participation. Many newer krewes have emerged in both in the city and the suburbs. Beginning in the 1930s, “truck parades” offered venues for informal groups who would decorate truck flatbeds and form a parade. Several krewes consist of women only; while Iris has paraded since 1959, Muses first appeared in 2001, and Nyx premiered its floats in 2012.
Because of racial segregation—both official and informal—whites and African Americans have evolved separate and different ways of celebrating Mardi Gras. Whereas whites have laid claim to “mainstream” Carnival, African Americans have developed their own Carnival institutions. Some African American groups, such as the Original Illinois, parallel the exclusive, old-line white krewes with debutantes and balls.
The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club started out in the early twentieth century as an informal parade that wandered between various social hubs in African American neighborhoods, and it was probably a parody of the grand parades of white society and their Carnival royalty (although that interpretation remains under debate). In recent decades, Zulu has taken on many of the trappings of the other grand parades with floats, throws—including hand-decorated coconuts—and a fixed route.
The New Orleans Carnival experience was transformed by the arrival of the superkrewes, beginning with Bacchus in 1969, followed by Endymion in 1974 and Orpheus in 1993. These groups are largely composed of businessmen who felt excluded from the insular, old-line Carnival organizations. The superkrewes stage the season’s largest parades, with the most spectacular floats and celebrity monarchs drawn from the film, television, and music industries.
Mardi Gras Indians are African Americans who dress in ornate costumes, called “suits,” based in part on the popular iconography of Native Americans. In small, organized “tribes,” such as the Wild Tchoupitoulas and Seventh Ward Hunters, participants maintain their own song and dance traditions and roam the streets on Mardi Gras, meeting up with other tribes or “gangs.” Another African American group, the Skull and Bones gang, probably derives from a Haitian tradition. Men and young boys mask as skeletons and go into the streets early Mardi Gras morning, waking their neighbors and admonishing the living with shouts of “You next!” A tradition whereby groups of African American women mask as Baby Dolls (that is, as children’s dolls or infants garbed in exaggerated nightwear) has existed since the early twentieth century.
Although African Americans celebrate all over the city, the center for African American Carnival has been Claiborne Avenue in Treme, the oldest African American neighborhood in the United States. However, the construction of an elevated highway along this route in the 1960s eliminated the once oak-shaded expanse of this street, which dealt a blow to celebrations there.
In 1992 the New Orleans City Council broached the matter of discrimination within Carnival organizations. After prolonged and contentious debate, the council passed an ordinance banning racial discrimination in the membership of krewes that stage parades, as these events require substantial support from publicly funded entities such as the police, the sanitation department, and emergency medical services. Three old-line white groups—Comus, Momus, and Proteus—discontinued their parades in protest of the local government’s involvement in the private clubs’ affairs, but the ordinance led to some measure of at least official integration of most Carnival groups.
The influence of Mardi Gras in New Orleans has been considerable. Whole industries have evolved for building floats or supplying costumes and throws; Kern Studios, established by Blaine Kern in 1947, builds floats year round, not only for New Orleans-area parades but also for Mardi Gras-themed events staged elsewhere, and tours of Mardi Gras World, where the company constructs the floats, are a popular activity. During Mardi Gras, tourists infuse much income into hotels, restaurants and other local businesses; conventioneers who gather in New Orleans at other times of the year often stage “mini-Mardi Gras” celebrations replete with throws, marching bands, and the occasional float. The beads used as throws have become emblematic souvenirs for tourists. New Orleans parades for holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day and Easter have come to be patterned after the Mardi Gras model. The plea among parade watchers for float riders to “Throw me something, mister!” has even been used on city trash cans. Many New Orleanians see the insouciant spirit of celebration expressed during Mardi Gras as a vital element of the city’s identity.