New Orleans and Mardi Gras are two words that most people immediately associate with each other. The throwing of coloured beads, parade floats and costumed people marching through the streets, jazz music blaring from every corner. Pictures of Bourbon Street heaving with people, brightly coloured feathered headdresses and what seemed to be a never-ending party. These are images that spring to mind when I think of New Orleans and its famous festival. But where did Mardi Gras come from? Why is it celebrated every year? Who takes part and what are the must-see events? Hopefully, this blog can shed some light on the history behind Mardi Gras, the best places to be and how to celebrate this famous festival in style!
The Origins of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras is a long-standing Catholic festivity that can be traced back to medieval Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. In French, ‘Mardi Gras’ translates to ‘Fat Tuesday‘. This is seen as a time to indulge in excess before self-discipline and abstinence of Lent occurs. Whilst Mardi Gras has been celebrated throughout all of Louisiana since 1699, it wasn’t introduced to New Orleans until it was discovered by a French-Canadian explorer, Jean Baptiste de Bienville in 1718. By the 1730s, New Orleans was hosting Mardi Gras publicly, although not in the way we would celebrate it today. In the early 1740s, luxurious society balls were thrown by the Governor of Louisiana, which today’s modern balls are based on. Nearly a hundred years later, in the late 1830s, the festivities began to transform to include street parades. Carriages and horseback riders formed street processions, led by flambeaux.
The Establishment of Clubs and Krewes
Mardi Gras is renowned worldwide for its enormous collection of krewes, who throw parades and have their traditions and historical backgrounds. The first krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was established in 1856 as a secretive society, with its members being chosen by invitation only. The cost of accepting this invitation was also quite expensive, resulting in its members consisting solely of the wealthy upper class. Comus also kept the identities of its members anonymous and any activities outside the public parade were kept private. They still hold an annual ball on Mardi Gras night to this day. In 1870, another krewe was founded, The Twelfth Night Revelers. They introduced the tradition of pitching ‘throws’ to the parade-goers. ‘Throws’ in today’s parades can be anything from beads to cups, even toys and more.
Mardi Gras: Present Day
So what should you expect from the modern festival that Mardi Gras has become? Mardi Gras celebrations take place over two weeks, finishing up on Shrove Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent. There is generally at least one main parade a day, although many days have multiple parades. The last five days of the festival play host to the grandest and most elaborate of these. The final week also sees a vast range of other events take place, including masquerade balls. The krewes are the organisers and participants in the Mardi Gras parades and they follow the same routes and schedules each year. But which ones should you plan to see?
The Krewe of Zulu
The Krewe of Zulu, named after the African tribe, are known for their outstanding performances and high-energy parades. The origins of the Krewe of Zulu date back to the early 1900s, when a group of labourers attended a skit show about the Zulu tribe. After seeing the show, they redrew to a meeting room and emerged as the newly formed Krewe of Zulu. Their first appearance in the Mardi Gras parade in 1909, saw them wearing the grass skirts that they are still known for today. The King, William Story, was decked out in a “lard can” crown and held a “banana stalk” sceptre. Of all the ‘throws’ that fall from floats at Mardi Gras, the Zulu coconut or ‘golden nugget’ is the most popular. The Krewe of Zulu is recognized internationally as one of the most dominant carnival organisations today.
The Royal Krewe of Rex
Rex has governed as Carnival King since his debut in 1872. Millions of visitors turn out every year to bask in the lavish traditions that are expected of his rule. One of the most anticipated is the glamorous succession of floats led by his lieutenants and captain on horseback, that takes place on Mardi Gras morning. This all-male krewe is also known for the official Mardi Gras flag and colours – gold for power, green for faith and purple for justice. This ties in with the Rex motto – Pro Bono Publico – meaning ‘for the public good’. Other traditions that accompany Rex’s reign are the throwing of coveted doubloons into the crowd and his much-awaited arrival into his Kingdom by boat on the Monday before Mardi Gras. Rex also chooses a distinguished civil leader to rule over Mardi Gras, and a debutant is chosen as his queen.
Krewes such as Rex and the Twelfth Night Revelers are known as “old-line krewes”, referring to the fact that they were amongst the first to parade at Mardi Gras. However, in recent years there has been a surge in the emergence of ‘super krewes’. These are generally seen as krewes with over 1000 active members. They are also known for supporting at least 500 riders for their carnival parades each year. Some examples of super krewes include Endymion, Bacchus and Orpheus. Endymion is one of the largest krewes in Mardi Gras history. They are known for selecting a celebrity grand marshal each year, such as Dolly Parton and the Beach Boys. Bacchus, named after the Roman God of wine, are known for their extensively large floats and the Krewe of Orpheus made history when they paraded the first float ever to be lit up by fibre optic lighting.
Mardi Gras Indians
Mardi Gras is an event that is rooted in mystery and secrets, from its inception by secret societies to the general atmosphere created by its costumed and masked participants. However, amongst all the krewes and organisations that take part in each year, the Mardi Gras Indians are the most enigmatic. They are known for keeping their parade dates and routes well under wraps, although they do gather in the same general districts every year. The members of the Indians largely come from African – American backgrounds within the inner city of New Orleans. The Mardi Gras Indians are named after the native Indians who harboured and welcomed slaves on the run into their society. The Mardi Gras Indian organization as a whole is broken down into over 40 tribes. They are hard to miss with their vivid hand-sewn apparel featuring complex beadwork and breathtaking imagery.
North Side Skull and Bone Gang
One tradition that strays from the familiar carnival imagery of Mardi Gras is the historic North Side Skull and Bone Gang. For the last 200 years, the Treme neighbourhood, located just outside the French Quarter, has been woken up on Mardi Gras morning at 5 am by this notorious group and their messages of peace. This custom can be traced back to 1819 and African spirituality, but is viewed by its members today as a symbol of the true meaning of ‘Carnival’, ‘the shedding of flesh’. For anyone who gets up early enough to see them as they pass from door to door, chanting, beating drums and dancing in the streets, it is truly a sight to behold.
Mardi Gras Balls
Many traditions take place each year alongside the parades, and the annual balls are no exception. Traditionally, the balls are thrown by the krewes for their members and guests. However, a few each year are open to the public. The Krewe of Endymion throws an after parade celebration in the Superdome that boasts top performers and sees thousands of attendees each year. The Krewe of Orpheus stages a black-tie event at the Convention Center that is equally revered for its top-quality entertainment and must-see acts. More than one hundred Carnival Balls occur each year throughout New Orleans. A time-honoured tradition that is performed at some of the more exclusive balls is the Tableaux. Tableaux are exquisitely staged pageants that portray stories surrounding history and myth. Attending a ball is a magnificent way of experiencing Mardi Gras and its legendary customs.
‘Let them eat the “King” Cake’
As with any historical celebration, there are various culinary traditions to enjoy. One of the most popular of these is the aptly named ‘King Cake’. The name itself comes from the Biblical tale of the three wise kings that brought gifts to the baby Jesus. The flavours of king cake generally resemble a hybrid of coffee cake and cinnamon rolls. However, many bakeries now offer multiple variations on the traditional flavours, such as pralines and cream. King cake is also an eye-catching treat as it comes iced in the Mardi Gras colours of green, yellow and purple. The most intriguing element of this dessert, however, is the plastic baby cake that is hidden inside. The idea behind this surprise is that whoever finds the baby must host the next Mardi Gras celebrations. This means that the party festivities continue and the fun never stops.
Other New Orleans Cuisine
As Mardi Gras is customarily a celebration of excess before the inhibition of Lent, the list of must-try foods and drinks is a long one. Across the globe, the day before Lent is known as Pancake Day, and Mardi Gras is no exception. Pancakes are a big indulgence all over New Orleans on Mardi Gras morning, with most restaurants and diners serving them to thousands of customers. Many New Orleans specialities are enjoyed throughout the Mardi Gras season, such as Po’Boys, Jambalaya and Gumbo. Popular fillings for Po’Boys include roast beef or fried seafood, such as lobster, crab or shrimp. Gumbo is also a wildly popular dish that is enjoyed and is deeply associated with New Orleans culture. As for drinks, the most sought after is the famous ‘Hurricane’. Created by a New Orleans bar owner in the 1940’s, it consists of rum, grenadine, lime and passion fruit juice.
Masking Mardi Gras
One of the most familiar images of Mardi Gras is the heavily costumed and masked partygoers revelling in the festivities. But where does this masked theme come from? When Mardi Gras first began, masks allowed people to break free from class and societal restraints. By wearing a mask, partygoers could be whoever they wanted to be and mix with whoever they desired. However, they were also associated with poorer people and, as a result, women who wore them occasionally had their reputation challenged. In today’s society, masks are an integral part of Mardi Gras festivities. Float riders are obliged to wear masks by law and crowd goers are free to don them as they please.
Mardi Gras World
For anyone wishing to experience Mardi Gras, during the season or outside of it, Mardi Gras World is a must-see. Located at Kern Studios in New Orleans, visitors can tour the 300,000 square foot warehouse where the floats for the parades are made and stored. Kern Studios was originally founded by Roy Kern, a local artist, who painted signs during the Depression. Roy and his son, Blaine, built their first Mardi Gras float together in 1932, eventually establishing Kern Studios in 1947. Blaine would ultimately go on to become the city’s premier parade and float builder. He would also earn the moniker of ‘Mr Mardi Gras’. After many requests for private tours of Kern Studios, the decision was made to open to the public in 1984. It is a wildly successful attraction that sees hundreds of thousands of guests each year.
Planning a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras looks different for everyone, but hopefully, this blog has shed some light on where to begin. Whether you see yourself on a balcony in the French Quarter flinging beads into the crowd, attending a masquerade ball, or hunting down coveted ‘throws’ at the parades, there is something on offer for everyone. And whatever you do, don’t forget to “Let the Good Times Roll!”