We New Orleanians like to think we are the center of the universe on Mardi Gras. While we are most definitely put on the largest and most fun free party in North America, the celebration of Fat Tuesday is much older than the city.
Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”) is the last day of the “Carnival” season. The length of Carnival varies from year to year, because it’s based on when Easter Sunday is. Why Easter? Because Carnival, therefore Mardi Gras has its roots in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. Let’s rewind back, probably as far back as the Roman Empire. Christianity was trying to convert folks from the worship of the many gods and emperors of the time. Many of the pagan festivals held at different times of the year were co-opted into the fledgling church’s calendar. Since Christmas and Easter are the most important observances in the Christian world, the Church decided that the faithful needed some time to prepare themselves spiritually and physically for the celebrations. For Christmas, that became the time of fasting, prayer, and reflection we call Advent, and for Easter, Lent. The sacrifices of Advent were rewarded with Christmas celebrations, going through New Year’s, up to King’s Day and the Feast of the Epiphany (Twelfth Night). With the observance of the Epiphany, the joyous times continue right up until it’s time to get ready for Easter. The time between Twelfth Night and the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, was called “carne vale,” or “farewell to the flesh.” Carnival was the last time Christians could eat meat until Easter. The Bible says Jesus went into the desert for 40 days, so Lent begins 40 days before Easter. Lent starts on a Wednesday, so everyone observing Lent has the Tuesday before it starts for one final blow-out.
That blow-out has taken different forms through the centuries. In Roman times, Carnival celebrations most likely weren’t much different from the pagan festivals it replaced. When Christianity moved into Northern Europe in the Middle Ages, the celebration of Mardi Gras became more formal. Barons and other lords would plan to make new knights on Mardi Gras, so they could celebrate, then get ready for springtime battles by training and fasting during Lent. The big celebrations naturally spread out into the towns next to the castles.
It sounds like an artistic turn of phrase to say that Mardi Gras has been with New Orleans since its inception, but it’s actually historically accurate. The celebration of Carnival continued in the Christian countries of Europe for over a thousand years. The LeMoyne brothers, Sieur d’Iberville and Sieur d’Bienville, explored the mouth of the Mississippi River for France in 1699. They entered the river on Monday, March 2, 1699. That day was two days before Ash Wednesday, and was known as “Lundi Gras.” They made camp downriver from where Bienville (Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne) would establish New Orleans about 20 years later. Iberville (Pierre LeMoyne) named the camp area “Point du Mardi Gras.”
In the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries, Carnival in New Orleans was an informal celebration by individual families. While some folks would take to the streets, the Spanish government that controlled New Orleans from 1763 to 1803 frowned upon large public gatherings. Between the large French population, and the number of slaves in the city, it made them nervous. That let up a bit after Napoleon sold Louisiana to the Americans. By 1830, public celebration on Mardi Gras became an organized parade in Mobile, Alabama. People in New Orleans took to the streets, but in a more disorderly fashion. Beginning in 1837, New Orleans had parades, but they were rowdy, almost riotous, to the point where civic leaders in the 1850s were seriously considering banning street celebrations.
In 1856, a group of six businessmen, three of whom were from Mobile, decided to take steps to “save” Carnival in New Orleans. The men from Mobile were familiar with the “secret societies” there, like the Cowbellians, so the group formed their own New Orleans organization. They named it the Mystic Krewe of Comus, and held a tightly-organized, two-float night parade on Mardi Gras, 1857. After their parade, the Krewe held a private bal masque.
That structure did indeed save Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Comus’ parade became a popular way to celebrate Mardi Gras during and after the Civil War. Interest in holding other parades grew in the late 1860s, so that by 1872, two new organizations took to the streets. One group chose to hold a daytime parade. Rather than name their krewe after a Greek or Roman god, they decided to make their “king” the “King of Carnival,” referring to him as “Rex.” The Rex parade is the premier parade on Carnival Day, over 140 years later. In addition to Rex, another secret organization paraded in 1872, the Knights of Momus. These groups wore masks while parading, maintaining their anonymity. Their organizations became closely linked to the business and political communities in the city.
Another group formed 10 years later, the Krewe of Proteus, in 1882. By then, interest in parades was widespread. A number of groups formed in the 1890s, including the first “marching club,” the Jefferson City Buzzards, in 1890.
All of these groups were segregated; the African-American community held their own celebrations, both formal and less so. Since one of the main purposes of the balls held by the Carnival krewes was to present the daughters of members to formal society (“debutante balls”), influential black families wanted to be able to do the same. In 1894, black businessmen and professionals formed the Original Illinois Club, so they could have their own bal masque. In 1909, a group of black men held a parade, mocking Rex by putting one of their number on a float, “crowning” him with a tin can, and giving him a banana stalk as a scepter. That group formally organized in 1916, as the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, now one of Carnival’s most-respected organizations and popular parades.
Over the 20th Century, Carnival contributed to putting New Orleans on the map as a tourist destination. Real-world royalty intersected with Carnival royalty in 1950, when Britain’s Duke of Windsor (the former Edward VIII) and his Duchess came to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, attending the parades, as well as the balls for Rex and Comus that evening. By the 1960s, though, businessmen interested in tourism promotion wrestled with the problem of a big celebration on a Tuesday. A lot of tourists expressed interest in coming to NOLA for Carnival, but couldn’t take off the better part of a week to do so. In 1968, those businessmen formed the Krewe of Bacchus, holding their first parade on the Sunday night before Mardi Gras in 1969. The idea was to boost the weekend festivities, showing tourists a good time, and letting them travel home on Monday.
While the men of Bacchus planned to expand the Carnival celebration, another group of men from Gentilly and the Ninth Ward (mostly graduates of St. Aloysius High School on Esplanade and N. Rampart) formed a krewe with the idea of parading on the Saturday before Mardi Gras. The men of the Krewe of Endymion raised the stakes as their membership grew in the 1970s, so that now Endymion on Saturday and Bacchus on Sunday are a one-two celebration that leave revelers exhausted with two days to go!
Carnival parades spread out into the various neighborhoods of New Orleans over time, as well as the suburbs. Economics and the need for crowd control/law enforcement forced the city to pull the widespread celebrations into more-standard routes, but we all still have a great time, whether we’re Uptown or Downtown. Carnival lives and thrives in New Orleans!
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. His latest book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is available at bookstores and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @NOLAHistoryGuy on Twitter.