me something, Mister! Throw me something!" shout thousands of street
revelers to costumed riders on larger than life floats as they shower
glittering trinkets over the scrambling crowd below. Parades--60
formal ones at last count and many other informal ones--fantastic
costumes, elegant balls and intricately designed tableaux, all essential
parts of Mardi Gras, one of the wildest celebrations in the country.
Spending time in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, even for just a few
days, is an experience you'll never forget. There's a craziness in the air
as most of the city shuts down to celebrate during the last two weeks
before Lent. This is no small time affair. Over 40,000 people in the
greater New Orleans area are directly involved in Mardi Gras parades, each
spending an average of $200.
Mardi Gras is as much a part of New Orleans as jazz and gumbo. It plays
an important role in the rhythmic cycle of the year, much like the Fourth
of July and Christmas do in other cities. It is a celebration for and by
the people of New Orleans, itself, and is not meant for tourists, although
the city fathers have made it into the city's Number One tourist
Carnival season begins with several weeks of society balls and culminates
with a splash of parades and revelry that ends at the stroke of midnight
on the night before Ash Wednesday.
The word Carnival comes from the Latin word "carnelevare,"
which translates to "farewell to the flesh." A celebration
common to Greek and Roman societies, it was a period of feasting before
Spring planting. The Roman Christian church sanctioned the spring rites in
the fourth century, fixing the date of Ash Wednesday to mid-winter, the
first day of the Lenten season. This time of celebration became known as
While Carnival is celebrated in many parts of the world, the French
dubbed it "Mardi Gras" or Fat Tuesday in the Middle Ages. At
that time, Mardi Gras included mass orgies and public executions but later
the French popularized the tradition of masking at balls, thus giving
Mardi Gras a more gentle tone. Louis XV added opulence to the balls, with
regal costumes and feasting.
French explorers brought the celebration to the New World and as New
Orleans became settled, it flourished as a rowdy street festival. However,
by the time the United States purchased the territory of Louisiana in
1803, Mardi Gras balls were taking place.
The First Parade
It wasn't until Mardi Gras evening in 1857 that the first parade was
staged by the Mystic Krewe of Comus, the first of the Mardi Gras krewes or
organizations. This group was formed by six members of the Cowbellians, a
group that had presented New Year's Eve parades in Mobile, Alabama, since
1831. Comus coined the word "krewe" and established not only the
themed parade but a secret Carnival society which chose a mythological
namesake and staged an elaborate tableaux ball. But the celebration of
Mardi Gras had gotten so violent before the mid-1800's that the press
called for end to it.
A hastily planned parade honoring the visit by the Russian Grand Duke
Alexis Romanoff was the inspiration for the first appearance of Rex, the
King of Mardi Gras, in 1872. Rex, astride a bay horse, was followed by the
Boeuf Gras, or Fatted Ox, the symbol of the last meat eaten before the
40-day Lenten fast. Rex immediately became the symbol of Mardi Gras and
was responsible for the first daytime parade, selecting Mardi Gras'
colors--purple for justice, gold for power, green for faith--it's flag and
its anthem, "If I Ever Cease to Love," taken from a popular
musical play of the day.
The year 1872 also was the first for the Knights of Momus, followed in
1882 by the Krewe of Proteus and the Knights of Electra. Today, there are
more than 65 Mardi Gras krewes.
Each of these organizations is made up of male, female or mixed
members, who stage the elaborate balls and parades with money from their
own pockets. Each has a Captain who takes care of the organizing and
producing of the krewe's ball and parade.
Throw Me Something, Mister
The single element that separates Mardi Gras parades from those held
elsewhere is that of the "throws" which turn parades in New
Orleans into crowd participation events. Baubles have been tossed off
floats since at least 1871 when a masked krewe member dressed as Santa
Claus dispensed gifts to the crowd.
Today, the typical float rider spends from $250 to $500 for a wide
variety of throw items, many of which bear the krewe's insignia. The most
popular throw is the doubloon, an aluminum coin minted in several colors
with the krewe emblem , theme of the parade, and date. Over twenty million
are thrown. Others include strands of beads--over two million gross of
them thrown last year--plastic cups with Mardi Gras designs and small
Almost all parades follow a standard format with the Captain appearing
at the head of the procession on a special float or on horseback followed
by the krewe officers, the King or Queen, followed by the title float and
those carrying riding members. All the floats are pulled by tractors now ,
but they were formally pulled by teams of white horses.
An individual 100-unit parade of a 200-member krewe may actually
include more than 3,000 performers when band members(as many as 30 bands
in one parade), clown units and motorcycle units are tallied up.
Night parades are the most exciting. Originally black men carried
lighted torches that swung on poles called "flambeaux." They
often danced while parading along and were given money by the crowd.
Today, most night parades use electrically lighted floats, but some do
have the flambeaux as a special touch.
By tradition and law, parades are not subsidized. No tickets are sold,
and no commercialism is tolerated.
Because the large papier mache floats are time-consuming and expensive
to build, less than a dozen krewes build their own original floats and
costumes. The other krewes select their floats from a pool of rental
floats and their themes are more generic. For instance, a float entitled
the Ten Commandments from a parade with the theme of the Bible, might show
up several days later as the lead unit of another parade with the theme of
Academy Award Winning Movies. Of the three parishes (counties) where the
parades take place--Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard--only Orleans
prohibits float builders from using the same float more then twice in any
Kings and Queens
The Kings and Queens of Carnival are chosen by drawings and other methods
that differ with each krewe. Only the King of Mardi Gras, Rex, is chosen
by the inner circle of the School of Design, the sponsoring organization
To be King or Queen is an honor that is often bestowed on someone high
in society. The King of Carnival is usually a leading citizen and his
Queen is a popular debutante. In fact, the masked balls of the older and
larger krewes like Comus and Momus are high society affairs.
Admission to the traditional balls held at the New Orleans Municipal
Auditorium are by non-transferable invitation only and dress is strictly
formal--tuxedos and tails for men and long gowns for women. Only 12 of the
65 parading krewes have such affairs. Unfortunately, only one ball, that
of the Krewe of Bacchus, is open to the public through the purchase of
Bacchus also stages one of the most elaborate parades. Beginning with
its inception in 1969, the Krewe of Bacchus is known for its impressive
tall floats that hit the trees along St. Charles Avenue, west of the
French Quarter. Like the famed Krewe of Endymion parade, which is one of
the longest, the floats are brought to the dance floor of the balls, which
are held in the Superdome.
Besides the parades and balls, many informal parties are held in New
Orleans throughout the Mardi Gras season, which begins traditionally on
the twelfth night after Christmas. A festive "king cake" is
served as a throwback to the European celebration of Twelfth Night. The
king cake always has a prize baked into it--usually a plastic baby or a
bean--and the person who gets the slice of cake with the prize must throw
the next king cake party.
King cakes come in many sizes and are sold in almost every bakery in
the Crescent City. One snack cake company even came up with a miniature
one big enough for one person.
Since the people of New Orleans like to share their celebration of
Mardi Gras, don't be surprised if you are given a string of white Mardi
Gras beads--the most prized--as a symbol of welcome when you order a drink
at a local bar.