Tuesday, March 4, is “Fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras for 2014. It has been celebrated in many European cities and countries since the Middle Ages as a last opportunity for feasting and celebration before Christianity’s Ash Wednesday and Lent. In the United States, the connection between Mardi Gras and New Orleans dates back over 300 years when French explorers first arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1699.
Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and his men set up camp on the bank of the river about 60 miles south of what is now New Orleans. The date was March 3, 1699, which was Shrove Tuesday, a holiday in France. It was a time for self-examination, of taking stock of one’s actions, in preparation for the 40 days of ritual fasting during the Lenten season before Easter. In commemoration of the holiday, the explorers named the site Point du Mardi Gras.
Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, the younger brother of d’Iberville, founded New Orleans in 1718. Disagreements over the building of the colony prompted Le Moyne, also known as Sieur de Bienville, to have a separate area drawn up of what has since become known as the French Quarter. He named the area La Nouvelle-Orléans after Phillippe II. New Orleans became the capital of French Louisiana in 1732 under Bienville’s leadership as governor.
As the population grew and more settlers arrived from France, the French traditions continued. History indicates that New Orleans began holding society balls during Mardi Gras in the mid-1700s. The first documentation describing the festivities was a 1781 report placed restrictions on African-Americans from attending the balls. The first written account of a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans was in 1837. Participants were described as wearing outlandish and grotesque costumes.
The modern version of the Mardi Gras parade started shortly before the Civil War. That included a “krewe” or group that put on a parade and other festivities throughout the Carnival season. The first krewe was in 1857 and called the Mistick Krewe of Comus. Members not only organized the parade but marched in it. Formation of the krewe was based on shared beliefs of class and race, and later memberships were often hereditary.
Even though Mardi Gras celebrations stopped during the Civil War, they resumed in the late 1860s. The Comus krewe was very pro-Confederacy and used the festivities to mock the Union leaders and Charles Darwin. They were also against many of the reforms issued as part of the Reconstruction. Other krewes were added throughout the 1870s and 80s with some promoting parades and themes such as mythological characters and others poking fun at political corruption.
The official King of Mardi Gras, Rex, was introduced in 1872 by a group of businessmen who were organizing the parade for the Grand Duke of Russia, Alexis Romanoff, who was visiting New Orleans at the time. The Romanoff family colors were purple, green and gold so these became the official colors of Carnival festivities. The official song, If Ever I Cease to Love, was introduced that same year because it was a favorite of the duke.
One of the krewes in the early 20th century was an African-American group, Zulu. They poked fun at segregation, racism and at Rex. Some Mardi Gras celebrations were canceled during the two world wars but there were intermittent festivities during Prohibition and the Great Depression. The jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, returned to his hometown of New Orleans in 1949 to ride in the parade as the Zulu king. Members of Zulu dressed in blackface as a parody on white social attitudes. Armstrong did not like the message this was sending about segregation in his hometown. Over the years, other antics by the Zulu krewe were offensive to members of the African-American community. The group survived though and by the end of the 1960s, its parade was one of the main events.
More changes came at the end of the 1960s including the Bacchus organization which presented the largest floats ever seen in New Orleans history. Danny Kaye, the famed Hollywood celebrity, rode in the 1969 parade on a Bacchus’ float as its king. New ideas attracted more visitors such as replacing the traditional ball with a supper dance. After a 117-year tradition, 1974 saw new rules that banned parades from going through the French Quarter.
The 1980s saw close to 30 new parades added to the Carnival festivities with an estimated 600,000 people watching them on Fat Tuesday. Tourism boomed during that time aided by national and international visitors who came for business and pleasure. Convention centers offered guests a Carnival-like atmosphere all year. One of the most dramatic changes took place in 1992 when a new city ordinance required all krewes to open their formerly private membership to the public. Some groups canceled their participation as a result while other groups opened membership to African-Americans for the first time.
Following the 2005 hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras faced another controversy. Those who participated in the celebration did so as a way of chiding the federal response to the people as well as showing that the city was alive. Those who were against the parades felt they were disrespectful in the wake of devastation.
Despite its popularity, there is only one state in the U.S. where Mardi Gras is a legal holiday; that is Louisiana. The festivities have been more than just partying and parades before Lent. They have reflected the times and problems of society either by protesting or lampooning them. Regardless of social, economic or racial issues of the day, the connection between Mardi Gras and New Orleans has been and continues to be inseparable.
By: Cynthia Collins