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Mardi Gras is by far the most iconic festival celebrated in New Orleans, such that the holiday and the city are inseparable. Play the word association game and say ‘Mardi Gras’ or ‘New Orleans’ to someone, and the other term likely pops into their heads immediately.

For all that the holiday is quintessentially New Orleans, it’s also a day that carries the most misconceptions about the city. For one: that it’s a day. To clarify: Mardi Gras is a day (specifically, Fat Tuesday, a shifting date determined by the Catholic calendar. But it’s a day that marks the end of the Carnival season, which truly kicks up on Twelfth Night (Jan 6).

From Twelfth night until Fat Tuesday, celebrations slowly build in momentum. At first, a chunk of Carnival season is indistinguishable from any other time of year in this town – a parade will roll here and there, like the Phunny Phorty Phellows, but parades aren’t exactly a rarity in this town.

Two and a half weeks before actual Mardi Gras, Krewe de Vieux begins, and parading season starts in earnest. But why, out of towners often ask, is there all this build up to one Mardi Gras day?

Because the holiday comes from a long tradition of celebrating feast time before famine – in this case, the self imposed austerity of Lent. In short, folks needed to gorge before giving up meat.

But Carnival has other, more anarchic antecedents as well. For all the aristocratic trappings of Mardi Gras – from fancy ball, to elite krewes parading about with masked revelers on floats tossing baubles to the crowds below – Carnival comes from a long tradition, likely pre-Christian, of giving the plebian classes a day to flip the social order.

The old church fathers knew it would be difficult to get converts to give up this tradition, so it was incorporated into the Catholic calendar, and later exported to other parts of the world via colonialism. Today, there are multiple Carnivals across the globe, and while Rio de Janeiro’s the largest, Mardi Gras is the largest in the USA, and ranks with Rio for brand recognition, as it were.

Be it Trinidad, Brazil or Burgundy St, Carnival celebrations bear certain similarities. People take to the streets, dress as whomever they like and generally poke fun at whatever they please. Sure, on Ash Wednesday, social order has returned, as churches reopen and the old rules reassert themselves. But for the first few, darkest weeks of winter, the world gets slowly turned upside down, with Mardi Gras representing the peak of the party.

'Mardi Gras on Royal Street, Old New Orleans'; 1940, by Morris Henry Hobbs.

'Rex procession passing the Clay Statue on Canal Street', 1879; by Henry Alexander Ogden.

Pete Fountain's Half Fast Walking Club, 1965, photoprint by Joe Wilkins.

Mardi Gras Indians, 2010, photo by Adam Karlin.

Creole Roots & American Branches
Mardi Gras is so tied to New Orleans it actually figures into the city’s founding narrative. In 1699, the holiday fell on Mar 2, the same day that French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville reached a position 60 miles south of New Orleans.

Bienville and his men wanted to commemorate Fat Tuesday, and dubbed the place they were in “Pointe du Mardi Gras”, and then proceeded to toss some beads into a marsh (just kidding about the last part). Contrary to what you may believe, the first official Mardi Gras in what is now the USA was held in Mobile in 1703, at Fort Louis de la Louisiane, established by Bienville in 1702. In 1704, the formation of the secretive Masque de la Mobile society foreshadowed the establishment of modern Mardi Gras krewes.

Carnival and Mardi Gras were openly celebrated by New Orleans Creoles – that is to say, the mixed descendants of the city’s French and Spanish colonists – as early as 1730, although the party centered more on society balls than parades.

Even following the Louisiana Purchase, and the incorporation of Creole New Orleans into the larger United States, the celebrations continued. In fact, it was Americans, not Creoles, who essentially created the modern Mardi Gras holiday, and saved the celebration from extinction.

We discussed how Mardi Gras has historically involved an inversion of order above, but maybe that theme had been carried too far by the mid-19th century. By 1837, Mardi Gras parades consisting of masked revelers were recorded on the streets of New Orleans, but these affairs were drunken, rowdy and violent – so much so that the popular press at the time editorialized for the end of Mardi Gras. This unthinkable outcome may have come to fruition were it not for six Anglo-American men who formed Comus, the oldest operating krewe in the city, in December of 1856.

Comus introduced flambeaux-lit processionals and themed parades, often linked to classical mythology. Around two decades later, in 1872, the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff visited the city, sparking a love affair with romanticized conceptions of Old World monarchy. During the same year, Rex – the ‘King of Carnival’ – appeared, along with many of the holiday’s iconic elements, including the anthem ‘If I Ever Cease to Love,’ daytime parades and the official Carnival colors of green, purple and gold.

Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once. Chris Rose, "1 Dead in Attic: Post-Katrina Stories."

An explosion of activity
The late 19th century was a wild time for Carnival – many of the traditions we associate with the season were created around this time. In 1875, Governor Henry Warmoth made Mardi Gras an offical legal holiday in Louisiana.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to the city in 1884 and 1885 and featured both parades of Native Americans and black cowboys, many of whom had been members of the Buffalo Soldier regiments. By 1885, the Creole Wild West, the first of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes, had been formed.

The 1890’s were a particularly active year for Carnival in New Orleans. At the beginning of the decade, the Jefferson City Buzzards, the first recorded walking krewe, was formed. Walking krewes, which usually represent neighborhoods or smaller, informal organizations and social networks, were a reclamation of the holiday from the large floats and parades.

By 1894, the Original Illinois Club, the first African American Mardi Gras organization, was created, followed by the first all-female group, Les Mysterieuses, in 1896.

Zulu is by far the most famous African American Mardi Gras krewe. Founded in 1916, the original king of Zulu waved a banana stalk in place of a scepter. Krewe members to this day dress in grass skirts and black face; originally, the idea was to parody early 20th century racist tropes, although the satire itself was protested by African Americans in the 1960s. Still, by 1968 the Zulu parade on Canal had become a popular and beloved fixture of Mardi Gras day, and their hand-painted coconuts are some of the most valued throws of the season.

Modern Mardi Gras
In 1969, Bacchus ushered in the super krewe, with celebrity led parades, enormous, flashy floats, and balls and parties that were open to the public. Super krewes grew throughout the 1970s, and by the 1980s, Carnival season – traditionally a locals’ holiday shunned by visitors – had become a tourism attraction. By 1987, Krewe De Vieux had formed, marking a departure from large floats and gaudy spectacle for a return to handmade decorations, walking parades and wicked, often raunchy satire.

Hurricane Katrina didn’t do much to pause Carnival, and the Mardi Gras parades of 2006 were largely seen as an assertion of the vitality of New Orleans in the face of disaster. Today, the holiday is celebrated at all levels of society, in every fashion imaginable, from family friendly day parades on St Charles Avenue to the infamous parties that precede Mardi Gras weekend, from space age walking krewes at Chewbacchus to the pomp and ceremony of official balls. However you cut the king cake, Carnival is an amazing period in New Orleans. We’ll see you at the masquerade.

All images courtesy of the The Historic New Orleans Collection.

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