The New Orleans season of merriment begins on January 6, the Epiphany holiday which comes twelve days after Christmas on the day many cultures celebrate the three kings presentation of gifts to the Christ Child. The spectacular parade countdown to Fat Tuesday begins the Friday twelve days before Ash Wednesday. Here the nearly sixty parades will stir an inimitable mix of royal ritual, teasing bead and bauble giveaways, liberal libations, mask fantasy and joyful excitement until the people's collective soul rises extravagantly on New Orleans Mardi Gras Day to reaffirm its tremendous appetite for the pleasures of life.
Three centuries of Mardi Gras History
The City of New Orleans distinction as the most deeply rooted Carnival culture of the Americas is in large measure due to the French culture's affinity for masked Balls, royal ceremony and public entertainments following Sunday morning mass and the African cultures long standing attraction to festival arts with rhythm and soul. Serving as North America's main port to the Caribbean and South America, this was a chaotic syncretic culture like no other, so different it had to have its own name--Creole.
In the easy going style of a future carnival culture, the French first laid claim to the mouth of the great Mississippi river and the upriver Louisiana territory in 1682. However, it was not till Mardi Gras Day in 1699 that a camp was established called Point du Mardi Gras by French Canadian Pierre D'Iberville at a spot about 60 miles below the present crescent shaped city. In 1717, at the direction of Scottish promoter and bon vivant John Law and under the authority of the Regent, Pierre's younger brother Jean de Bienville established the town of New Orleans because of its crescent shaped strategic location on the Mississippi close to the giant Lake Pontchartrain.
The City name honored the Crown Regent and Duke of Orleans who ran the colonies for the child King Louis XV of France in the early 18th century. For the first few years French citizens invested much capital having been convinced they could get-rich-quick by the brilliant public relations skills of John Law, yet in typical fashion, relatively few French elected to immigrate. A short time later, the French investors grew impatient and wise to the fact that the promised return on their investment was long term at best. By 1720, Law had to flee France to escape his enraged investors.
Despite great colonial ambitions for their strategic port city on the gulf of Mexico, the inhabitants spent much of their time surviving with the help of the local Choctaw Indians and each other. Over time, this Creole culture would place much stock in a code of "live and let live " tolerance. Colonial New Orleans was racially diverse with an active free market economy which encouraged slaves to develop businesses which might contribute to their maintenance. This was America's first truly multi-cultural community.
The King would eventually turn the money losing colony over to his cousin King Carlos III of Spain and the much stricter Catholic moral code in 1762. Yet the the colony thrived under the Spanish who wisely expanded trade opportunities , tolerated local traditions and eventually married into the prominent local families. Despite the Spanish affinity for a solemn Sunday, the Afro-Creole saw their freedoms expanded. In fact, under the Spanish, slaves could use their market earnings to purchase their freedom even if their owners objected. The Afro-Creole tradition of gathering on Sundays for music and dance at a marketplace plaza on the periphery of the French Quarter known as Congo Square was the community's most important weekly event.
The 19th Century
The century began with the great war general and ruler of France, Napoleon Bonapart regaining the rights to Louisiana from Spain but an official transfer never took place. Soon President Thomas Jefferson successfully negotiated the sale of the entire Louisiana Territories from France in 1803. At this time, the city consisted of just the 1300 structures in the French quarter and about 8,000 inhabitants over half of whom were black..
Nowhere else in North America were blacks accorded the freedom to dance and drum in a public environment of their own choosing. Authorities would eventually try to restrict the cultural practices to the most popular spot, Place des N้gres or Congo Square. Correspondingly, the attention helped make the spot internationally famous and numerous accounts exist of the Sunday afternoon glory of music, motion, and fancy dress.
Following a major influx of 10,000 settlers from French Haiti and other islands of the Caribbean, Louisiana became a US state in 1812. Nevertheless, it was not until 1827 that the right to party in mask was restored. In 1823, the visiting Protestant minister Flint recorded this description of Negro Carnival.
"The great Congo-dance is performed. Everything is license and revelry. Some hundreds of negroes, male and female, follow the king of the wake....All the characters that follow him, of leading estimation, have their peculiar dress, and their own contortions. They dance, and their streamers fly, and the bells that they have hung about them tinkle. Never will you see gayer countenances, demonstrations of more forgetfulness of the past and the future, and more entire abandonment to the joyous existence of the present moment.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century, large waves of French speaking immigrants arrived. Many of them were French Canadian who had refused to renounce their Catholic faith to meet British demands and thus began a round about resettlement process from the Acadia region of Nova Scotia to the sister Bayou region of Southern Louisiana. Their strong culture had a saying "Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler" or "let the good times roll" which complemented the Creole-style yet also needed its own name, Cajun.
For some time, the only refined Carnival festivities open to the wealthy northerners were the Quadroon Balls which were revived after the departure of the Spaniards. French Creole society arranged marriages for economic and social reasons and it was at these Balls that gentlemen might select well educated mistresses whose lighter skin was supposed to mean their ancestry was less than one quarter black. The revelry and lively atmosphere of these balls was legendary and considered by many the highlight of the carnival season.
By the mid 1840's New Orleans was one of America's great cities, the fourth largest as well as owner of the country's second largest port. Not without some tension, for the growing American English speaking White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) were moving to gain political power. The prudish WASPS disapproved of the moral climate of New Orleans and of carnival in particular. That the French Creoles were notoriously snobbish and their grand affairs for the elite were exclusive debutante carnival balls must have had its effect for the new WASP clubs were just as exclusive. Control of the City Council by Anglo-Americans occurred in 1852 and is most remembered for its tightening of Afro-American freedoms including an 1858 ban on organizations (including churches) not under the control of whites.
While Mardi Gras processions in New Orleans had long been the norm, historians have chosen to cite 1857, when the Mystic Krewe of Comus, Merrie Monarchs of Mirth introduced torch-lit nighttime parades as the modern-day inception of Mardi Gras. In 1872, city-wide Mardi Gras enchantment occurred and it was the vision of royal rule of unruliness which captured the collective imagination. The new krewe of Rex introduced their King to complement the Queen first presented by the Twelfth Night Revelers the previous year.
The event introduced not only a ruler but also the official Mardi Gras flag, colors (green, gold and purple standing for faith, power, and justice) and the royal anthem. This song "If Ever I Cease to Love" was from the burlesque show "Blue Beard" and featured these inexplicable nonsense lyrics now known by all natives.
"If ever I cease to love,
May cows lay eggs and fish grow legs.
If ever I cease to love."
The show's beautiful singing sensation Lydia Thompson had inspired a visit by a royal Russian suitor, the Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff which had in turn inspired the city to set new high standards for parade pageantry. Ever since, royal revelry has been the organizing principle of this Creole Carnival culture which knows only two seasons; before Carnival and after Carnival.
Come 1862 and the Civil War the Afro-Creole spirit was quickly revived with the assistance of federal troops. However, despite some glorious unifying special events, the post-war reconstruction period was about increasing division between the races with liberty and justice for all but blacks.
Eventually, Homer Adolph Plessy, the New Orleans Creole of color, challenged and won a lower court victory that these restrictions on freedom were unconstitutional. Nonetheless, on an appeal in 1896, the Supreme Court decreed the landmark legal sanction of "separate but equal" accommodations for blacks and whites. This would serve as the major stimulus for the all but complete removal of blacks from the political process throughout the entire South.
The 20th Century
About 1900, it was reported that the favorite disguise of blacks on Mardi Gras day was the Indian warrior. Musically, the Indians rhythms and melodies were West African and quite similar to certain popular Afro-Caribbean Carnival celebrations of Cuba, Haiti and Trinidad. The visually dramatic Indian costumes could be said to demonstrate solidarity and mixed blood with the oppressed native culture of their new homeland. Yet the paraders were mostly paying homage to their own ancient African identity and deep festival arts traditions. The flamboyant costumes had been inspired by the popular Wild West shows while the expressed impulses for renewal, freedom, and reversal of the established order were vintage carnival.
The unique local Mardi Gras organizations known as Krewes were fostered by these various strong cultures who tended to form mutual aid societies devoted to promote the general improvement in their member lives. While the first women carnival club event was staged in 1896 by the "Les Mysterieuses" ladies, all-women Mardi Gras parades are a rarity amongst the Krewes organized around traditional values of family, community and social status. The main event for krewes is their annual Ball which often stars members daughters as debutantes and the Queen and the older male members who help their King perform the ceremonies as Dukes. Traditional Mardi Gras Balls are strictly private containing long standing rituals whose mystery would be diluted by outsiders.
In 1909, members of a group of laborers belonging to a mutual aid society called "The Tramps" became inspired by a comedy skit about the Zulu Tribe entitled "There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me and reformed as the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club." Their first Zulu King was William Story and he wore raggedy pants, a lard can crown and carried a banana stalk as his regal scepter. Black society was mocking the pompous pageantry of high society and managing to capture the spirit of carnival while delighting their audience. A survivor of many challenges to their humor in the 1960's, at present the Zulu coconut is the most prestigious prize amongst the thousands of Mardi Gras throws.
In 1992 a city ordinance was passed which demanded more open krewe membership in return for parade permits. Three of the most historic and aristocratic krewes, Comus (1857) , Momus (1882), and Proteus (1882) elected to discontinue their parades rather than open up their membership to scrutiny.
Today, three super krewes Endymion, Bacchus and Orpheus have brought democratic and super-star production values to the three major nights of Mardi Gras (Saturday, Sunday and Monday respectively). Other major parades are put on by the Hermes parade on Carnival Friday night and Rex, Zulu and Elks along St. Charles Avenue on the spectacular Mardi Gras Tuesday when all cares must be forgotten.
For drunken decadence and unusual mating rituals nothing beats the other side of Canal Street in the French Quarter and while its no place to bring the kids, you will need an extra roll of film for your camera. On Fat Tuesday the spectacular finals of the gay costume contests take place staring some of the most dynamic and engaging Drag Queens of the known world. Authorities wish the French Quarter would return to a more coy level of debauchery during the twelve days it operates at its current steamy level but no impromptu ritual has ever honored the American obsession with female breasts in such a pleading and climatic manner.
It is not possible to do all that should be done on Fat Tuesday and it is not in the spirit of Carnival to try, after all there is always next year. Be on the look-out for the raucous jazz of the many marching clubs such as the famous Pete Fountain Half-Fast Walking Club or the Jefferson City Buzzards.
This final culmination, where excitement is at a fever pitch, is your best chance to catch elusive Mardi Gras Indians whose aesthetic cultural values, dedication to their craft and the spirit of freedom pay a hearty tribute to the early multicultural roots of this great American City.
The past lives in these ancient rituals of enjoyment and enchantment and perhaps your future as well.
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