The Magic of Mardi Gras

Each year, thousands of people flock to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The celebration, though, is much more than a blur of purple, gold, and green.

Though carnival parades have always been known for their beautiful light shows, Endymion – named for the mythical Greek youth who fell in love with the moon – is best known for using modern lighting techniques to dazzle its spectators.

My earliest memories of Carnival have blended like a faded dream. Although they are all from when I was seven, they have  survived through the haze of childhood amnesia. I remember distinctly watching a daytime parade pass by. I remember sitting miserably as band after band marched down the street, each with bass drums loud enough to beat your heart for you. I remember that it was cold, which didn’t make sense, because it was supposed to be hot in New Orleans, and I remember feeling confused about why so many people were throwing beads from floats. That night, I remember feeling even more disoriented at a second parade because of how sleepy I was. This parade was much more crowded and much more unappealing – I stood on a cooler next to two chainsmoking women for what felt like hours.

Being old enough to appreciate the celebration has changed everything.  I’ve since asked about that trip, specifically those two parades that I have such vivid memories of. That year, Mardi Gras fell during Bronx Science’s Midwinter Recess — a rare treat — so my mom and I traveled down to her hometown to visit family and feast on king cake (‘Mardi Gras’ does translate to ‘Fat Tuesday,’ after all). It turns out that Mardi Gras morning was particularly cold that year — that was why Zulu wasn’t much fun to watch — and that Bacchus was way past my bedtime. I’ve since accepted the fact that people smoke a lot more in the South than they do in the North, and the fact that Carnival parades must be loud; it’s simply part of the wonderful chaos. 

That chaos is historic, too: the roots of Carnival reach all the way back to France in the Middle Ages and even ancient Rome. It’s a season of festivities rooted in Catholic tradition — that’s why it ends on the day before Ash Wednesday each year, and that’s why it is celebrated in so many former French colonies. Of course, Ash Wednesday starts off Lent, the Catholic fasting season, so Carnival is meant to allow people to rejoice and indulge as much as possible before the season of reflection and abstinence begins. Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday, is the culmination of that festival.

The particular brand of celebration unique to New Orleans, though, all began on February 24th, 1857. Where Creole New Orleanians had been celebrating Mardi Gras privately within their communities for decades, six white men decided to form a secret society which would celebrate the holiday in a ‘more organized fashion.’ The men, drawing on plans from the Alabama secret society Cowbellion de Rakin, held their first meeting with a few dozen of their white businessmen friends on January 4th, 1857. They decided on the name the Mistick Krewe of Comus – Comus is the ancient Greek god of festivities and “nocturnal dalliances” – and went about planning their parade. They donned costumes, acquired floats and torches (called flambeaux), hired marching bands, and the rest is history. 

That’s not the entire story, though. No secret society would be complete without organized governance, or without secret rituals. In the case of Comus (and all the Krewes which followed suit), that leadership is a monarchy, and that infamous ritual is a yearly ball. Invitations have always been highly coveted; even now, they’re highly sought after by collectors. And the identity of the King of Comus — this is true for all of Comus’ happenings, really — is completely esoteric.

It all sounds enchanting: the torchlit procession, the vibrant floats, the concealed king with his scepter and crown, the lavish balls. Comus, though, completely withdrew from the public sphere in 1992, for the better.

In 1991, Dorothy Mae Taylor, an activist and politician (and the first Black woman to serve in the Louisiana House of Representatives), proposed an ordinance that would desegregate Carnival Krewes. Almost every Krewe up until then had been exclusively white and exclusively male, and almost every Krewe utilized public utilities (city streets) and public funds (city cleanup) for its parades. Representative Taylor’s proposal required that every Krewe which utilized these services be desegregated; when it was passed, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, along with the Krewes Proteus, Momus, and Rex stopped parading in indignation. Later, Proteus and Rex allegedly came around, but non-white, non-male krewemembers are few and far between. 

Of all the old-line Krewes — those over a century old — one emerged as a direct response to the racism as old as Carnival itself: the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Originally a benevolent society called the Benevolent Aid Society, the historically Black Krewe first paraded in 1909. 

As my mom explains, “what people not from New Orleans have a hard time understanding is that Zulu is satire. It satirizes white New Orleans upper-crust society.” Where the kings of Rex and Comus always wear ermine robes and have yearly crowning ceremonies complete with resplendent crowns and scepters, the first king of Zulu wore a crown of lard cans and held a banana stalk as a scepter. Zulu’s signature throws are coconuts: originally live, “they were hand-painted, and if you got a hand-painted coconut thrown from Zulu that was really special because they were kind of rare.” Laughing, my mom goes on to explain, “They stopped doing that in the 1990s – there were so many lawsuits because so many people were getting hit on the head with the coconuts, so now they have plastic coconuts… they don’t give you a concussion when they hit you on the head.” These plastic coconuts are still hand-painted by the krewemember who throws them and are still breathtakingly beautiful. And even better, they can be kept forever because they never go bad.

Though a federal judge later declared Representative Taylor’s ordinance violated the First Amendment, overturning it, the piece of legislation shifted the culture of Carnival. That, and Hurricane Katrina: “so many people left New Orleans after Katrina, and so many other people moved in, that it completely changed the culture of Mardi Gras.” Though some all-female krewes like Venus and Iris have been around for decades, many more emerged. Walking Krewes, open to the general public, sprung up. Three Krewes named Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpheus grew into ‘Super Krewes,’ with over 1,000 active members all year.

Though some things have changed over the years, others have stayed the same. Many Krewes are still composed almost exclusively of white men. Tourists still flock to the French Quarter, and still think of Carnival as a big street party, where people “exhibit kinds of behaviors that they would not in their normal lives, in their homes.” For that reason, native New Orleanians completely avoid the Quarter during Carnival, especially in the week leading up to Mardi Gras day.

It’s understandable, given that everywhere else in the city, Carnival is a flawed but vibrant celebration of color and history and music and culture.

Further reading:

If you want to learn more about the history of flambeaux and flambeaux-carriers, click HERE or HERE

If you want to learn more about the history of Zulu, click HERE.

If you want to read a transcript of a statement about Rep. Taylor’s ordinance, click HERE.

If you want to learn more about Krewe nomenclature, click HERE.

Carnival parades must be loud; it’s simply part of the wonderful chaos.