What is Mardi Gras

What is Mardi Gras?

Long before Mardi Gras arrived in Louisiana, it was celebrated in many European Christian countries. The word carnival originates from the Latin words caro (carnis) meaning flesh and vale, meaning farewell. Literally, people would give leave of flesh. Most likely this dates back to the pre-Christian Roman Bacchanalian feasts. The celebration spread. It became associated with Ash Wednesday, the start of the 40-day Lenten period. In France, it was popular to fatten up a calf for a feast the day before Ash Wednesday called the Beouf Gras (fatted cow), hence the name, Mardi (Tuesday) Gras (Fat).
Three hundred years ago on Fat Tuesday (Carnival day 1699) Mardi Gras was “introduced” to Louisiana. Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville and their men set up camp on the west bank of the Mississippi about 60 miles from where New Orleans would be founded. In celebration of Carnival, the site was name Point du Mardi Gras and the channel was called Bayou Mardi Gras (and who says these guys lacked imagination?!). They remain the oldest designated sites of NON Indian origins in the Mississippi Valley.

The name carnival is derived from the Latin Caro, Carnis, flesh, and vale, farewell (according to Ducange, from the Latin denomination of the feasts of the Middle Ages, carnis levamen, solace of the flesh), because at that time people took leave of flesh. The carnival of the modern world is nothing more or less than the Saturnalia of the Christian Romans who could not forget their pagan festivals. From Rome, the celebration spread to other European countries and finally to America. Carnival is still observed in many American cities but certainly not with the glamour and grandeur that is attendant to the New Orleans carnival which had its birth in 1827, when a group of students, recently returned from school in Paris, donned strange costumes and danced their way through the streets. The students got the idea for their Mardi Gras revelry from the celebrations they had experienced in Paris.

New Orleanians caught the enthusiasm of the youths and from 1827 to 1833. Mardi Gras each year saw more and more revelries, culminating in an annual Mardi Gras ball. In 1833 Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville, a rich plantation owner, solicited large amount to help finance an organized Mardi Gras celebration. It was not until 1837 however, that the first Mardi Gras parade was staged. The first description of a Mardi Gras parade is of a single float in 1839 which was a crude thing, but a great success. It is reported that the float moved through the streets while the crowd roared hilariously. Since then Mardi Gras in New Orleans has been a definite success. It continued to grow, with additional organizations participating each year until the Carnival as we know it today was the result.

New Orleans was founded by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville (we have streets in New Orleans bearing the names Iberville and Bienville) in 1718. Mind you that this was 7 years after the first Mardi Gras society was founded in Mobile, Alabama! Under the first French rule, Carnival balls were held at Governor Grand Marquis de Vaudreuil’s (now really, just how many titles does one person need?) lavish home. The Spanish came and were not thrilled with the raucous masking, parading and ball stuff so, thanks to Governor Don Antonio de Ulloa, the celebration was banned. It didn’t meet with much success as the proclamation was largely ignored. In the early 1800’s the Bals Masque were so popular that a law was passed to limit the carnival season from January 1st to Mardi Gras day to keep everyone from celebrating it all year long!

The 12th night after Christmas, January 6th, is the official start of the Carnival season. It was the 12th night after the baby Jesus was born that the Wise men visited bearing gifts. In the 1790’s Twelfth Night parties were very popular on Louisiana plantations. In 1792, the first public ballroom (La Salle Conde) opened in New Orleans. The following year, those pesky people in Mobile, The Spanish Mystics had their first parade on 12th night.

Mardi Gras balls were Pre-Lenten cotillions. Plantation owners would come to their town homes in New Orleans in November. Sugar cane is cut and processed in October, if you have ever been around the smell it is (ugh) very much like molasses (big surprise). It is very heavy and just permeates the whole countryside. I think they came into town just to avoid the smell! Mind you, the plantations were miles a part from each other, as well as New Orleans and opportunities to make love matches for daughters were slim. If your daughter did not make a connection (or you failed to arrange a match, often a business merger) during the season, it would have to wait until the following year.

In 1804, the first Mardi Gras crisis under American rule was over whether to play French music or English music. Thankfully that was resolved and the following year was the first Quadroon ball, but 1806 made public masking and most balls illegal AGAIN! There was a reprieve for balls in 1823 and by 1837 we have the first documented street procession. In 1827 it is said that the production at the Theatre d’Orleans was so popular that it continued until St. Joseph’s day! (March 19) This continued until 1857 when Mardi Gras, as we know it, was born. Thanks to some drunken guys from Mobile, the first Krewe was born. The Mystik Krewe of Comus, 6 gentlemen costumed and masked, took to the streets in two mule drawn floats. Their theme was “Signs of the Times”. The hallmark of the Comus Krewe was (and still is) their biting political satire. Sadly, the Civil War cancelled 4 years of celebration.

The Twelfth Night Revelers introduced the grand march at their masked ball in 1871, but more importantly the selection of the first Queen by drawing a golden bean from a King Cake. Incredibly, in the benchmark year, the introduction of throws came about by a man dressed as Santa Claus on one of the floats! In the old days, throws were glass beads, which have become highly prized collectors items.

Rex showed his regal head for the first time in 1872, with the first daytime parade to salute the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis. There will be more on him, as he was quite the rogue! Rex and the King of Carnival are one and the same and he reigns over all of Mardi Gras. The Rex Krewe gave us the official flag, colors (purple, green and gold) and anthem for Carnival.

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Carnival New Orleans – Krewes

Instead of being a celebration of several days duration, the New Orleans Carnival is a long series of balls over a period of many weeks climaxing with the celebration on Mardi Gras day when Rex, King of the Carnival, receives the keys to the city and rules for the day. Although Rex is the king of kings of the Carnival, the oldest organization is the Mistick Krewe of Comus which was organized in 1857. Rex did not appear until 1872.
In 1937, There were between 25 and 30 krewes including several organizations for women. In 1996, there will be no fewer than 50-60 krewes and accompanying parades and other festivities.

Membership in the krewes is through invitation only. Members of the krewes who participate in the annual ball are known as “the cast” and their identity is never officiially revealed. Numerically krewes run from a membership of less than 100 to over 300; some krewes such as Endymion, boast over 1,500 members.

Dues vary depending entirely on the magnitude of the organization and its importance in the make-up of carnival. In addition to the dues, members are taxed for krewe favors, after-ball dinners and other incidentals.

While each organization has the regular group of officers such as president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, etc., the captain is the real executive and is in absolute control of the presentation of the tableau on the night of the ball.

The ball consists of a tableau depicting some event in history or mythology, song, or story. The ballroom, usually the Municipal Auditorium (or Superdome for some of the larger krewes), becomes a brilliant stage set with the members of the organization as the actors. Each individual krewe has its own distinctive manner of presentation.

Over each ball reigns a king and queen and their courts. As like every other member of the krewe, the king and his dukes are under the mask and their identity never officially revealed. Rex, the King of the Carnival, is an exception to this rule.

The queen and her maids are selected by the captain and the executive committee of each organization. They are notified of their selection far in advance of the ball but their identity is kept from the public and the members of the krewe until the night of the ball. For the better part debutantes make up the courts of the krewe but there are exceptions to this rule.

Attendance at the ball is by invitation only. Unless the visitor to New Orleans has some connection or contact with a member of a krewe and is in a position to receive an invitation they are unable to be present. As a result, the general run of visitors to the New Orleans Mardi Gras are only privileged to witness the street pageants and do not participate in the Carnival festivities except on Mardi Gras day during the hours of promiscuous masking which is from sunrise to sunset.

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Carnival Ball Protocol
There are three distinct classes of invitations to the carnival balls. The first two are for men and women guests. Each card issued is a personal invitation to a lady or gentleman bearing their names and is not transferable. These invitations permit the invited guests to witness the staging of the tableau. Both lady and gentleman must be in evening clothes to gain admittance to the ball. Tuxedoes are permissible for gentlemen but no lady is allowed to enter tha ball if she is wearing a hat. Gentlemen receiving the regular invitations are known as “black coats” and are not allowed to participate in any of the dances until the krewe has left the floor which is usually after the 15th or 16th dance and near the midnight hour. Hermes, in this respect, has only eight maskers’ dances which gives the gentleman guest or “black coat” an opportunity to dance at an earlier hour. Ladies receiving the regular invitations are accorded the same privileges as the gentlemen which is essentially that of an “audience”.
The third type of invitation is extended to ladies who are requested to participate in the maskers’ dances. These invitations are known as “call-outs” and the holders of “call-outs” are in effect the honored guests of the ball. Ladies with “call-outs” are accorded seats of honor on the floor of the ballroom. No men other than members of the floor and reception committees who must be in full costume de riguer and who are identified by red and white carnations, are allowed on the ballroom floor during the maskers’ dances.

Ladies with “call-outs” remain seated until a masker “calls” for them to dance. The method of “call-outs” may be confusing to the uninitiated but is quite simple when explained or seen in operation. Following the tableau members of the floor committee seek a masker desiring to “call-out” a lady and ask the lady’s name. The masker is identified by a number on his program. The committeeman shouts the name of the Lady in the “call-out” section. When she is located, he offers her his arm and leads her to the dance floor where she is presented to the masker who does not identify himself. She is presented with the krewe favor by the masker and following the dance returns to her seat to await another “call-out” while the masker requests a committeeman to obtain another “call-out” for the next dance. This procedure is followed intil the last of the maskers’ dances when the entire krewe leaves the floor and turns the dancing over to any guest present at the ball.

The same rules predominate in the women’s organization with the exeption that the women are masked and the gentlemen are “called-out”.

In keeping with the policy of all krewes, the queen of a women’s organization is not officially announced while, on the other hand, the identity of the king is formally made public when he is selected.

Following the balls, many of the krewes have all-night supper dances at downtown hotels or restaraunts. Practically all of the balls are staged at Municipal Auditorium. In other years they were staged at the St. Charles Hotel, La Salle d’Orleans, the old French Operal House, the Athenaeum, the Orpheum and Tulane Theaters. The street pageants are housed and built in huge buildings called “dens”.

Membership in a krewe is not limited to one organization. An individual may join as many as he is invited to become a member of.

To give you an idea of the growth of Mardi Gras, the men’s krewes during the 1937 Carnival season in the order of their appearance were Harlequins, Olympian, Twelfth Night Revelers, Caliphs of Cairo, Bards of Bohemia, Nereus, Eros, Osiris, Athenians, Mithras, Prophets of Persia, Oberon, Atlanteans, Mystery, Momus, Hermes, Apollow, Melson, Mystic Club, Proteus, Rex and Comus.

Besides this group there were the krewes of Pan, Hypathians, Aparomest, Iridis, Noblad and Les Marionettes for women. Addes also are a number of smaller groups. In 1996, at least half of the krewes on this list no longer exist, but have been replaced with many more new organizations.

As the adults have their parades and pageants, so do the children of New Orleans sponsor and present their own Carnival parades and pageants. All schools in the city have their own individual Carnival programs and events. They all lead to the ultimate–participation in the big Carnival spectacles which are to come in maturity.

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Mardi Gras Day

On Mardi Gras day the climax of the Carnival season is reached. All cares are forgotten. The streets are crowded with maskers who rolic and frolic with free abandon. Comes the night, the last of the street pageants, the balls and at the stroke of midnight the courts of Rex and Comus meet, exchange greetings and another Mardi Gras is ended.

The ending of one Mardi Gras celebration is the beginning of preparation for another. Hardly have the streets been cleared of the confetti and the flags and the bunting; scarcely has the echo of the fun-maddened crowds died out when plans and preparations are begun for the Carnival which is to follow. Year in and year out Mardi Gras comes and Mardi Gras goes. It is part of New Orleans, nay, it is the soul of New Orleans.