The quirky history of Carnival and Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the final day of the Carnival season, which begins on the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6. Carnival is rooted in various pagan celebrations of spring, some dating back 5,000 years. But it was Pope Gregory XIII who made it a Christian holiday when, in 1582, he put it on his Gregorian calendar, placing it on the day before Lent begins.

Much of the first part of the Carnival season is made up of invitation-only balls and supper dances hosted by private clubs known as krewes. The public portion of Carnival comes to life a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras when the krewes hit the streets, staging more than 70 parades in metropolitan New Orleans.

Here come the French

Mardi Gras arrived in North America with the LeMoyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville, in the late 17th century, when King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France's claim to the New World territory of Louisiana. The explorers found the mouth of the Mississippi River on March 3, 1699 - Mardi Gras of that year. They made camp a few miles upriver, named the spot Point d'Mardi Gras and threw a spontaneous party. This is often referred to as North America's first Mardi Gras. However, it is just as likely that the weary explorers were simply celebrating the fact that they were still alive. A couple of decades later, Bienville founded New Orleans and people began to celebrate Carnival with private balls and public masked spectacles.

Costumes and chaos

By the 1800s, Carnival had become an increasingly rowdy event defined by drunkenness and violence. In 1857, Mardi Gras was on the verge of being banned, when six residents (who formerly belonged to a group that staged New Year's Day parades in Mobile, Ala.) stepped forward and formed a new private club to present a parade based on a theme, with floats, costumed riders and flambeaux (torch carriers who lit the way) - an orderly alternative to the chaos that Carnival had become. They chose the name Comus after the Greek god of revelry and coined the "krewe" appellation.

It's good to be king

By 1872, new troubles were brewing in the city. Postwar carpetbaggery had reached its zenith and rumblings of revolt against the city government could be heard. As Carnival approached, fears of masked reprisals surfaced.

Then came the diversion city leaders needed. News arrived that a Russian prince had accepted the city's invitation to Mardi Gras. A new krewe of prominent citizens from both the government and its opposition was formed, from which a King of Carnival would be chosen. The group called itself the School of Design and its ruler was to be Rex. Mardi Gras morning, Rex established the official colors of Carnival with his purple, green and gold costume as he and his bay charger led 10,000 maskers in a line more than a mile long. The ballad "If Ever I Cease to Love," which was played during the parade, became the official song of the season.

Modern times

The 20th century saw a number of Carnival innovations:

  • The oldest parading African-American krewe, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, first took to the streets in 1909, with the krewe's gilded coconuts eventually becoming one of the season's most prized throws.
  • By the 1950s, the truck parades, composed of floats built atop flatbed trucks (usually by families), had become well established.
  • In the late '60s the "superkrewes" Endymion and Bacchus appeared, breaking with tradition by offering open memberships, larger floats and celebrity kings.
  • But Carnival also faced new foes:
  • A 1979 police strike caused parades to be canceled in the city, just to see a number of them pop up in the suburbs.
  • The City Council's anti-discrimination ordinance of 1988 called for krewes to either open their ranks or stay off public streets. In response, three of the four oldest krewes - Comus (1857), Momus (1873) and Proteus (1882) - took their floats and went home.

Rex remained and the other slots were filled. Proteus eventually returned in 2001 became the first krewe to parade in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. But no matter what the obstacle, the Greatest Free Show on Earth has always found a way around it.

As historian Buddy Stall once wrote: "It has been said that the people of New Orleans love Carnival and Mardi Gras parades to such an extreme that if a catastrophe were to occur and only two people survived, at the next Mardi Gras one of them would be in costume marching down the street, beating a drum and holding a banner, while the other would be standing on the side in costume, drinking a Dixie Beer and hollering, "Throw me something, mister!