By Arthur Hardy
In New Orleans, the city famous for its French Quarter and Bourbon Street, for Creole cuisine and for cool Dixieland jazz, one event surpasses them all – Mardi Gras! It’s a season of revelry and romance, of madness and music, of parades and parties, of comic costuming in the streets and grandiose private masquerade balls. Mardi Gras is a time when the gaudy and the gorgeous all come together for one all-encompassing blowout. From the regal to the ridiculous, New Orleans Mardi Gras has it all!
Since the first modern-day pageant was presented in 1857, with time outs occasioned by World Wars, more than 1,800 Mardi Gras parades have been staged in metro New Orleans. The festivities have grown into one of the world’s grandest tourist attractions. Yet for all its international acclaim, it can be difficult for a first-timer to grasp. The celebration has its own vocabulary, and Mardi Gras day is scheduled on a different date each year. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Mardi Gras, however, is its connection to religion.
Carnival, loosely translated from Latin as “farewell to flesh,” is the season of merriment that begins in New Orleans each year on January 6, the Twelfth Night feast of the Epiphany (the day the three kings visited the Christ Child). Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” is the single-day climax of the season. While Mardi Gras undoubtedly has pagan and pre-Christian origins, the Catholic Church legitimized the festival as a brief celebration before the penitential season of Lent. The date of Mardi Gras is set to occur 46 days before Easter and can fall as early as February 3 or as late as March 9.
During the 12 days preceding Mardi Gras, more than 60 parades and hundreds of private parties, dances and masked balls are annually scheduled in the metro area. Fat Tuesday is a legal holiday in New Orleans, a day when half the city turns out in costume to watch the other half parade! Then, promptly at midnight, the party’s over as Ash Wednesday ushers in the austere Lenten season.
The single custom that most distinguishes Mardi Gras parades is that of throws – trinkets tossed from the floats – which turn New Orleans parades into unmatched crowd participation events. “Throw me something Mister” is the battle cry of the million-plus people who line the parade routes. Most popular among the millions of throws are those that illustrate the organization’s logo and the parade’s theme, including plastic drinking cups, medallion necklaces and colorful aluminum coins called doubloons.
Since no commercial or corporate sponsorship of a Mardi Gras parade is permitted, it is the Carnival club members who put on the show and foot the entire bill. Mardi Gras organizations are non-profit clubs called krewes. Each krewe is completely autonomous, and there is no overall coordinator of Carnival activities. Krewe members pay dues, ranging from US$250-$850. In addition, they spend as much as they wish on throws. Some krewes stage parades; others present private tableau balls or bal masques (masquerade balls in which scenes are acted out); many do both. About a dozen organizations dating from the 19th century use the Carnival ball as the highlight of the debutante season, as daughters of the socially elite members are presented at the city’s Municipal Auditorium.
Through the ages
Les Mysterieuses, Carnival’s first female organization, staged its premiere ball in 1896, but it was not until 1941 that the Krewe of Venus presented the first ladies’ Mardi Gras parade. In 1909, Zulu, Carnival’s first African-American parading krewe, was founded as a spoof of white Mardi Gras. Its parade is now one of the highlights of Fat Tuesday.
While membership in parading organizations was once limited to only a few citizens, the expansion of Mardi Gras into the suburbs and democratization of Mardi Gras in the 1960s and 1970s opened up participation to virtually everyone. Super krewes such as Bacchus and Endymion helped modernize the festivities. In New Orleans there are krewes for men, women, men and women, and families. On Mardi Gras day, about a dozen marching clubs cavort around town, including the historic Jefferson City Buzzards, founded in 1890, and the celebrity-filled Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club. For more than a century, the elusive Mardi Gras Indian tribes such as the Wild Tchoupitoulas and Yellow Pocahontas have also gathered on Carnival day. Their presentations and chants as they show off their “new suits” are a Mardi Gras day highlight.
But after all is said and done, Mardi Gras remains an event and a spirit that must be experienced to be understood. It’s a mixture of centuries – old traditions and high-tech innovations. From the bawdy behavior of Bourbon Street to the family festival that Mardi Gras is everywhere else, the Carnival season in New Orleans truly defies description. Perhaps noted local author Don Lee Keith said it best: “In the truest sense, it is magic. But magic revealed is magic destroyed. And that is why the gods who made Mardi Gras dissolved the secret of that day in a chalice of mystery, leaving their creation forever without definition.”
This article was written by Arthur Hardy, publisher of the annual Mardi Gras Guide magazine and provided with permission from the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau.