Tuesday, February 05, 2008
No one really knows where or when the custom started -- and many of us don't care! Some people trace it to the Romans, whose pagan orgies were held during the spring season. A few other places celebrate Mardi Gras, but no one does it like New Orleans -- the City that Care Forgot!
The French in New Orleans were having private masked balls and parties in 1718. When the Spanish government took over, parties and street dancing were banned. It wasn't until 1827, when Americans were in power, that the right to party in mask was restored --I love America! During the 1850's, the city's elite and their elegant Mardi Gras parties were quite a contrast to the wild partying and near-rioting in the streets. It was soon clear that all celebrations were in danger of facing another ban.
In 1857, a group of men formed a secret society called the Mystick Krewe of Comus. They knew that Mardi Gras could be preserved with planning,organization, and management of the celebrations. Comus planned the first parade around a theme and used flambeauxs to light the procession. The Krewe of Rex formed in 1872 -- principally to entertain the visiting Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia.
Since America didn't have royalty to properly welcome the Grand Duke, the men in Rex created a King "for the day" so the Grand Duke could be royally received. They secretly anointed one of their own (a certain Mr.Halliday) to be the King of Carnival. Mockery is a hilarious characteristic of Mardi Gras! (To this day, many parades keep their King's identity a secret until parade day.) It soon became known that the Grand Duke's reported mistress lover, Lydia Thompson (an American actress and star), was appearing in New Orleans during the Duke's visit. We don't know if having a mistress at that time was to be kept quiet, but the parade band didn't care, and its official theme then became "If Ever I Cease to Love You." Mardi Gras has always been risque at times!
New Orleanians have since formed a lot of secret societies that have served many charitable and social functions. They often help unite the city with their parade's political themes. In 1877, after a brief interruption from the Civil War and the unrest that followed, the Krewe of Momus held a parade with the theme "Hades, a Dream of Momus" to ridicule President Grant and his Administration. During the Persian Gulf War, the theme for many parades and costumes was patriotism. In order to catch Mardi Gras throws, many parade-goers fashioned nets with a cardboard face of Sadam Hussein saying "Hit Me!" Mardi Gras is pretty sassy, too!
Mardi Gras can even poke fun at itself. The blacks of New Orleans mocked the snobbishness and exclusivity of Rex with their own parade. In 1909, William Storey wore an old tin can for a crown instead of the more elaborate crown Rex used. William was crowned "King Zulu" that year, and was proceeded by "Provident Prince" and the "Big Shot of Africa." Donning black face and white eyes is another irresistible pun of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club. Zulu's parade would meander from barroom to the barroom in junky cars and wagons instead of floats. If you wanted to catch the start of the parade, you had to find the bar that was extending hospitality to King Zulu. This Krewe didn't establish a parade route until recently. Today Zulu, withits beautiful modern floats, is one of the more popular parades of the season! They are known for their unique, hand-decorated coconut throws. Only a fortunate few are lucky enough to get those!
Most Mardi Gras Krewes developed from private social clubs that have restrictive membership policies. Since all of these parade organizations are completely funded by its members, we call it the "Greatest Free Show on Earth"!
* info from Mardi Gras: New Orleans*