A Short History of Mardi Gras

Hear ye!  Hear ye! 


on the Rock & Roll is a State of Mind blog!




"The holiday of Mardi Gras is celebrated in all of Louisiana, including the city of New Orleans. Celebrations are concentrated for about two weeks before and through Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday (the start of lent in the Western Christian tradition). Usually there is one major parade each day (weather permitting); many days have several large parades. The largest and most elaborate parades take place the last five days of the Mardi Gras season. In the final week, many events occur throughout New Orleans and surrounding communities, including parades and balls (some of them masquerade balls). 

The parades in New Orleans are organized by social clubs known as krewes; most follow the same parade schedule and route each year. The earliest-established krewes were the Mistick Krewe of Comus, the earliest, Rex, the Knights of Momus and the Krewe of Proteus. Several modern "super krewes" are well known for holding large parades and events, such as the Krewe of Endymion (which is best known for naming celebrities as grand marshals for their parades), the Krewe of Bacchus (similarly known for naming celebrities as their Kings), as well as the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club—a predominantly African American krewe. Float riders traditionally toss throws into the crowds. The most common throws are strings of colorful plastic beads, doubloons, decorated plastic "throw cups", Moon Pies, and small inexpensive toys, but throws can also include lingerie and more sordid items. Major krewes follow the same parade schedule and route each year." (Wikipedia) 

From the gotquestions.org site: "Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday, is the last day of a season called Carnival. The Carnival season is characterized by merrymaking, feasting, and dancing. Mardi Gras is the culmination of festivities and features parades, masquerades, and, unfortunately, often drunkenness and shameless debauchery. Carnival is typically celebrated in Catholic countries of southern Europe and Latin America.  The excess of Carnival may not seem to have much in common with the austerity of Lent, but the two seasons are inseparable. The day after Fat Tuesday is Ash Wednesday; therefore, the end of Carnival is followed immediately by the beginning of Lent. Lent is a time of fasting and penance in preparation for Easter. Carnival, then, can rightly be seen as the indulgence before the fast. It is one last “binge” before having to give something up for 40 days.  In general, Mardi Gras revelers engage in a binge of sinning before a time of consecration to God. The celebration of Mardi Gras fosters the notion that you can do whatever you want on Fat Tuesday, as long as you show up in church on Ash Wednesday. It’s the bender before the benediction, and it’s utterly unscriptural."



Carnival, the riotous and bawdy festival celebrated across Europe and in the Southern region of the United States,  has been in existence almost since the beginning of civilization itself.  Over five thousand years ago, Ovid, a poet of ancient Rome, wrote verse about a spring festival that was celebrated to ensure greener pastures and the forgiveness of sins. Greek priests would sacrifice a goat, cut its skin into whips and use them to lash the naked revelers as they danced.  This festival, known as the Lupercalia, evolved throughout the centuries and spread from Greece to Rome and France, where the festivities became a bit more pleasant, yet still full of lewdness, debauchery and occasional violence. Many revelers, in order to conceal their true identities while behaving in an uncivilized manner, wore masks.  When Christianity took hold, around the the year 600, the Church was appalled at such displays of lewdness and impiety. However, the Church knew that it would be impossible to obliterate the annual celebration. Around this time, Pope Gregory made the dates of the Holy Days of Ash Wednesday and Easter fluctuate with the equinox. Realizing that since the season of Lent, a time when Christians fast and self-denial is practiced, could coincide with this spring festival of madness, he renamed it the Carnivale which literally means "farewell to the flesh." This ensured that the festival ended on the day before the solemnity of the Lenten season. 

The traditions of this festival of public debauchery and costuming were eventually embraced across Europe, and as European settlers journeyed to America, it was only a matter of time before Carnival became part of the American cultural heritage.  On March 3rd, 1699, when the French settlers, led by the explorers Iberville and Bienville, made camp on the banks of the Mississippi River, it was Mardi Gras Day. The group of settlers held a small celebration at their campsite by the river and aptly named it Mardi Gras Point. An observance was also held in Mobile, Alabama in 1703. The French settlers in Alabama carried on the traditions from their homeland as did those who settled in Louisiana. The city of New Orleans was founded in 1718 and private Carnival celebrations were staged.  The earliest reference to Mardi Gras "Carnival" appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body. That year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans. 

By 1743, the first Carnival Balls were held throughout the season.  When the Spanish gained control of Louisiana, they banned all festivities of the Carnival Season.  In 1823, not long after The Louisiana Purchase had made Louisiana a possession of the United States, the celebration of the Carnival Season was reinstated.



In 1830, in Alabama, a one-eyed man named Michael Kraft and his friends were celebrating Carnival in a restaurant in downtown Mobile. It was the last day of the Carnival Season. Following their dinner party, the tipsy celebrants "borrowed" farming equipment and coal wagons from a nearby business, quickly devised some makeshift costumes and began parading through the streets. This was the first Mardi Gras Parade ever held on American soil.



By 1837, unofficial parades were held in the streets of various southern cities. By 1872, the Krewe of Rex held their first official parade. The parade was in honor of the visiting Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. It is here that the official colors of Carnival were instituted. The Krewe of Rex chose the royal colors of the Romanoff family of Russia as their backdrop. This choice of colors continues to be used to this day. The colors are purple which stands for justice, gold for power and green for faith.



"Masks and costumes have been associated with Shrove Tuesday celebrations for centuries. And even today of the masks commonly seen in New Orleans on Mardi Gras are the same types popularized by the two-to-three-week-long Carnivale in Venice that culminates with Fat Tuesday. But masking and costume-wearing in New Orleans also has a specifically American history, as it was another way for revelers who were officially excluded from the festivities to join in, by concealing their identities.  This phenomenon was particularly pronounced during the Jim Crow era of the early 20th century. For example, the African-American men now known as Mardi Gras Indians first paraded down the city’s back streets in Native American costumes, in a nod to Native Americans who took in and protected runaway slaves. Another poignant example, the breaking of the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition, can be found in the African-American prostitutes who dressed up as Baby Dolls — a persona chosen because that’s what male clients called them — in hopes that the costumes would help them land work at a time when sex work was racially restricted.  Legend has it that the custom of throwing Mardi Gras beads from parade floats started sometime in the 1880s when a man dressed like Santa Claus was cheered when he tossed some beads into the crowds along the parade route.​​​  In short order, other Carnival Krewes adopted this popular Mardi Gras tradition.  The throwing of beads and fake jewels, from parade floats to those watching down below, is thought to have started in the late 19th century, when a carnival king threw fake strands of gems and rings to his “loyal subjects” sometime in the 1890s. By the early 1920s, one of the Krewes, probably Rex, started regularly throwing strands of glass Czech beads, a precursor to the plastic beads seen today. Other throws — such as doubloons marked with the names of the krewes that make them — followed after." (The Culture of Mardi Gras)


“Though there’s some debate over the extent to which ancient beads are evidence of advanced syntactical language, the cross-cultural importance of beads goes so far back that much of its meaning has been lost to time. Since antiquity, humans have used beads to reflect cultural identity and social status. Fast forward to today—and today, specifically, being Mardi Gras—and New Orleans is arguably the planet’s most bead-drenched city. (The environmental implications, it seems, are no match for tradition.  Mardi Gras has been called the season of madness in New Orleans. The ritual of Mardi Gras has survived Hurricane Katrina, Prohibition, and the Civil War, but its roots go much deeper than that. The earliest Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, an import from France, date back to the 17th century. The first krewe, the local term to describe the clubs that organize Mardi Gras festivities, was founded in 1858. By around 1870, krewes were throwing trinkets, baubles, and candies to crowds during parades. A decade later, they were throwing medallions.  Beads occupy a paradoxical space at today’s Mardi Gras celebrations. They can be both the centerpiece of festivities and the trimming. They’re prized objects, and yet many strands of beads—or pairs, to use the proper New Orleans lingo—are discarded, metallic snakes left curled in gutters. They’re simultaneously coveted and cast aside.  Strands have become longer, in general. Machine-made beads largely replaced hand-strung beads. Glass was replaced with plastic. Opaque plastic medallions gave way to transparent plastic ones. Medallions gradually got bigger and bigger. Most recently, beaded strands for medallions have been swapped out for satin cords. These details all factor into a deeper understanding of a celebration that’s, for all its lunacy, much more complex than it may appear.  Mardi Gras beads, to the uninitiated, are just chintzy party favors doomed for the landfill. But they’re also a link to the past, a symbol of a celebration that’s been going on for as long as recorded history.” (The Atlantic)





The Krewe of Rex was the first carnival krewe 

to throw trinkets to the crowds during a street parade.  

This event also marked the premiere of the official Mardi Gras song, 

If Ever I Cease To Love.


If ever I cease to love, if ever I cease to love 
May the moon be turned into green cheese 
If ever I cease to love




During the 1800's and 1900's, many Carnival Krewes came into existence; along with walking clubs and Social Aid and Pleasure clubs. These clubs existed for the purpose of parading, having fun and helping their communities through various charity efforts. In their earliest days, Krewes were dignified and very serious about their procedures, parades and the themes behind their parades. Majestic and historical themes were commonplace as the Krewes treated their subject matter with elegance to their celebrations. One of the first of these types of Krewes was the Zulu Krewe. Throughout the years, however, the newer Krewes took more of a tongue-in-cheek approach to all things Carnival.


In the early 1900's, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure club made its mark on Carnival.  Zulu was comprised entirely of working class black Americans.  In their parade, they mocked the snobbishness of Krewes like Rex and Comus.  In fact, their parade float was a comical caricature of the Krewe of Rex.  Instead of masking in the royal colors of Rex, the members of Zulu wore blackface.  When the Zulu tradition began, the Zulu King wore a crown made out of an old can of lard as opposed to the bejeweled crown of King Rex.  The Zulu Queens were all men dressed in drag and the royalty of Zulu sported names like the "Big Shot of Africa."  Zulu was also the first Krewe to connect the marching band street jazz sounds of the black neighborhoods to the Carnival Season.


In 1991, the New Orleans city council proposed an ordinance that would desegregate all Krewes. The battle that ensued raged over the course of the following year. Krewes such as Comus, Momus and Proteus declined to roll out their floats during Mardi Gras. Eventually, a compromise was worked out when legislation dictating that no Krewe could practice discrimination by gender was entered into law.  In the past couple of decades, there have been over sixty official Carnival Krewes parading in the greater New Orleans area.  Unofficial Krewes have numbered in the hundreds. 

Following the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and its surrounding areas in 2005, Mardi Gras briefly lost some of its intensity as the city of New Orleans recovered from the storm's devastating impact.  From Wikipedia: "The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in late 2005 caused a few people to question the future of the city's Mardi Gras celebrations. Mayor Nagin, who was up for reelection in early 2006, tried to play this sentiment for electoral advantage[citation needed]. However, the economics of Carnival were, and are, too important to the city's revival. The city government, essentially bankrupt after Hurricane Katrina, pushed for a scaled back celebration to limit strains on city services. However, many krewes insisted that they wanted to and would be ready to parade, so negotiations between krewe leaders and city officials resulted in a compromise schedule. It was scaled back but less severely than originally suggested. The 2006 New Orleans Carnival schedule included the Krewe du Vieux on its traditional route through Marigny and the French Quarter on February 11, the Saturday two weekends before Mardi Gras. There were several parades on Saturday, February 18, and Sunday the 19th a week before Mardi Gras. Parades followed daily from Thursday night through Mardi Gras. Other than Krewe du Vieux and two Westbank parades going through Algiers, all New Orleans parades were restricted to the Saint Charles Avenue Uptown to Canal Street route, a section of the city which escaped significant flooding. Some krewes unsuccessfully pushed to parade on their traditional Mid-City route, despite the severe flood damage suffered by that neighborhood. The city restricted how long parades could be on the street and how late at night they could end. National Guard troops assisted with crowd control for the first time since 1979. Louisiana State troopers also assisted, as they have many times in the past. Many floats had been partially submerged in floodwaters for weeks. While some krewes repaired and removed all traces of these effects, others incorporated flood lines and other damage into the designs of the floats. Most of the locals who worked on the floats and rode on them were significantly affected by the storm's aftermath. Many had lost most or all of their possessions, but enthusiasm for Carnival was even more intense as an affirmation of life. The themes of many costumes and floats had more barbed satire than usual, with commentary on the trials and tribulations of living in the devastated city. References included MREs, Katrina refrigerators and FEMA trailers, along with much mocking of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and local and national politicians. By the 2009 season, the Endymion parade had returned to the Mid-City route, and other Krewes expanding their parades Uptown."


Here's some video footage of The Krewe of Rex parade 2011:



This 2006 Washington Post article describes how the true spirit of Mardi Gras continues to endure into the New Millenium: "What's remarkable about Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the extent to which the entire city has institutionalized this defiant laughter, so that every class, race and condition shares it. In a noisy, messy, highly varied and inevitably imperfect way, Mardi Gras amounts to all New Orleanians reminding each other that they're all in this fate thing together. Nothing signals that more than the climax of Mardi Gras, just before it all ends tomorrow, when Comus, the symbolic king of New Orleans's vestigial old family aristocracy, and Rex, the "king of the people," ceremonially come together at the end of their krewes' elaborate balls at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium...But the point is that carnival isn't just about having a good time. It's about reCarnival is very much a cultural and psychological survival mechanism for almost all New Orleanians, black and white, rich and poor, and for the city as a whole. It's the great shared experience of perhaps America's most culturally diverse city -- a giant municipal block party in which each neighborhood, age and ethnic group acts out and shares with others its particular finger-at-fate coping mechanism.minding oneself that good times are a precious part of life -- not to be traded casually for an extra hour at the office or a fleeting illusion of power or significance." (Washington Post)




"The courir de Mardi Gras (literally to “run” Mardi Gras) is a rural and lesser-known Cajun counterpart to urban celebrations of Fat Tuesday in such cities as New Orleans and Lafayette. For the courir, disguised revelers convene before dawn at a predetermined locale, typically a participant’s farmstead. They form a costumed band that travels either on horseback or by tractor-drawn trailers throughout a rural community, calling on neighbors, relatives, and friends. Playing the dual role of a jester and beggar, the revelers sing, dance, and perform comic antics in exchange for “a little fat chicken,” guinea hens, rice, sausage, onions, or lard—all ingredients for a communal gumbo that is served later that evening. Fowl are generally donated alive, requiring revelers to chase and capture chickens and guinea hens. The tradition functions as a ritualistic means of creating, sustaining, and defining the boundaries of rural communities in southern Louisiana.

Though there are approximately thirty versions of the courir de Mardi Gras, the celebrations can be distinguished by the participants’ method of travel. While some runners travel on horseback, others ride on tractor-drawn wagons, and a few use a combination of horses and wagons. There are all-male, all-female, mixed gender, and—most recently—all-children runs. The use of whips constitutes perhaps the most striking difference among the revelers. In whipping celebrations such as those in Tee Mamou, l’Anse LeJeune, and Hathaway, captains wield thick, braided burlap whips to keep order. Scholars believe the whipping ritual descends from a pre-Christian festival known as Lupercalia, in which participants would run past bystanders, whipping them with a goat skin thong as a fertility demonstration. In some courirs, revelers willingly endure the whippings, which are not violent in nature. In others, part of the tradition includes attempts by the runners to take the whip away from the captain. 


Both all-female and all-male runs are led by unmasked male capitaines. The men often wear a cowboy hat or baseball cap while carrying flags symbolizing their authority. Capitaines act as mediators between the Mardi Gras runners and the community. In exchange for providing entertainment for the community, they procure ingredients for the gumbo. Moreover, it is the capitaine’s responsibility to assure homeowners that the revelers will not steal from them or damage their property.


Costumes vary widely from community to community in accordance with local customs. Some participants chose to wear mortar boards, bishop’s miters, or commercially made Halloween masks depicting everything from monsters to US presidents. Capuchons, or conical hats, are among the most prevalent Mardi Gras regalia. Communities such as Tee Mamou insist that runners wear handmade screen or needlepoint masks in addition to capuchons, thus creating a niche market for mask makers such as Suson Launey, Renée Frugé Douget, Allen and Georgie Manuel and Jackie Miller. Collectively, these women have made hundreds of masks and colorful costumes from hand-sewn remnants. Often, various grotesque features are added to the masks; stuffed hosiery, for example, is sometimes used to create an absurdly long nose or exaggerated lips. 

In some communities, specialized characters called the nègre and nègresse paint their faces black in lieu of masks. Often portrayed by the same individuals every year, these two characters act as unofficial captains while performing in blackface like end men from a minstrel show. This tradition not only has stirred debate about the racial politics of the nègre and nègresse but also has created tension between communities and ethnographers. In Afro-Creole communities, people of color have also donned whiteface. The practice is thought to be a manifestation of the traditional Mardi Gras masking custom of assuming an opposite or markedly different identity for the holiday.



Singing is another important component of the rural Mardi Gras celebration, and two basic variants are found in celebrations across Acadiana. The first type—lyrics sung with instrumental arrangement—is organized with a minor modal chord progression. These songs describe the characteristics and purpose of the Mardi Gras run: “We get together once a year, to ask for charity/Even if it is just a skinny chicken, or three or four ears of corn.” The song concludes with an invitation to “join us for gumbo later tonight.” A number of Cajun musicians—including the Balfa Brothers and Nathan Abshire—have recorded different versions of this composition. The second song variant is a French drinking song that is performed a cappella as revelers approach a home. In the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras, for instance, approximately ten people line up shoulder to shoulder over several rows and sing the song while slowly creeping toward their neighbor. This particular variant describes a dwindling bottle of alcohol." (64parishes.org)




This year the citizens of New Orleans have (as usual) found a way

to celebrate Mardi Gras in spite of the Co-vid Pandemic!


Stacey & Michael Burke swinging the good thing in front of their Mardi Gras Float House!

Michael and Stacey Burke dance to a three-piece Cajun band led by fiddler-singer Louis Michot of the Lost Bayou Ramblers in front of the “Acadiana Hayride” house float by “Hire A Mardi Gras Artist,” a grassroots initiative by the Krewe of Red Beans. The float features a horse-drawn hayride of Zydeco and Cajun music legends like Wilson Anthony "Boozoo" Chavis, D.L. Menard, and Clifton Chenier. A giant accordion that would take at least two people to play was put on the top of the home and was installed by Travis Keene, black jeans, and Joey Mercer, blue jeans, with a little help from Michael Burke. Burke is a retired gaffer or chief lighting technician for Law and Order SVU and Criminal Intent and he put his experience to work by lighting up the home at night. The float wraps around to the other side with more notes and names of Cajun and Zydeco bands on the home on Euterpe Street in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans. The house float initiative hopes to build 40 house floats for every $15,000 donated. The donations go towards supplies and hiring float artists, many who are out-of-work because of the cancellation of Mardi Gras and Carnival parades due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents who live and own a home in Orleans Parish that donate to the project are entered into the raffle to get one of the house floats even for a small sum like $25. The #HouseFloat was designed by Caroline Thomas with additional artwork by Ryan Blackwood and Daniel Fuselier. Red Beans official photographer, @rhrphotography, even helped out in holding some of the artwork. Photos by @MattHintonPhoto for @VeryLocalNOLA


There was dancing and live music on Friday (Jan. 15) to unveil the third house float of the Krewe of Red Beans’ effort to put laid-off Mardi Gras artists to work. The theme for the Lower Garden District house float is “Acadiana Hayride,” and it features portraits of Cajun and zydeco musicians, dancing couples and of course a horse. The latter seems to block the entrance to the house. “We just squeeze in around it,” laughed homeowner Michael Burke. 


When homeowner Stacey Burke donated to the Krewe of Red Beans’ “Hire A Mardi Gras Artist” crowdfunding site, she was doing it to support out-of-work Mardi Gras artists who lost their livelihoods with canceled parades. But she got a wonderful surprise by winning the raffle to have her house at Constance and Euterpe streets decorated. 

The Burkes are fans of Cajun and zydeco music. So the theme for the Lower Garden District subkrewe of the Krewe of House Floats — “Let the Music Play” — seemed perfect for this “Hire A Mardi Gras Artist” project. Krewe of House Floats is a separate initiative from the Red Beans project. It has neighborhood subkrewes presenting their own themes with residents decorating their own houses. 


The Burkes were happy to work with professional artists. “With the help of professional Mardi Gras float designers, we will honor the musicians of south Louisiana, namely, Cajun and zydeco music,”  the Burkes said in an email. And honor they did, by having Louis Michot of the playing to delight the onlookers at the inauguration. Let the music play." (From the Uptown Messenger)






Joy of heart, good cheer and merriment 

are wine drunk freely at the proper time." 

The Bible, Sirach 31:27


Tomorrow's Blog Post: 

The Legacy of New Orleans Brass Bands


Haiku Monday's debut Mind Smoke Records release, The Ghost of Pontchartrain Expanded Edition, is an imaginary movie soundtrack for a ghost story that takes place in New Orleans, Louisiana. Follow the dark trail of Sammy Thibadeaux, the Ghost of Ponchartrain, as he returns home to his former life of underworld voodoo and murder. Salvation is at hand!



Check out the Biscuit Kings Mardi Gras Single!



Check Out The Hideaways New Album!








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