History of New Orleans Carnival
by Adele Bielenberg – 1995
Carnival as celebrated in New Orleans begins officially with the ball of the Twelfth night Revelers, twelve nights after Christmas and reaches its height on Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday.
The word Mardi Gras is the French for Fat Tuesday, the day of feasting before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
The word Carnival comes from two latin terms which mean meat and farewell and signifies a short time before those of many faiths don sack cloth and ashes bidding a forty days farewell to meat during lent.
The first recorded Carnival in New Orleans was in 1827 when a group of Parisian taught sons of rich planters returned home and duplicated the festive French occasions with parading and masking.
The Mardi Gras balls however, preceded the street celebrations. They began in Colonial times and are believed to have started shortly after the founding of New Orleans in 1718. The Celebration was then called, "Soiree du Roi" or Kings Party and was held in private homes twelve nights after Christmas with the guests cutting a cake called a King's Cake.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a spirit, as well as a day, and one of the world's greatest free shows. To quote from Robert Tallant, "Mardi Gras is very old, but it is very young. It belongs to the past, yet also to the present and the future. The face it wears now is not necessary its last. It will exist in other forms in other times, in other places. "It would be wonderful if the clown in the grinning mask should appear on all the main streets of the world if the blazing flambeau and the rocking floats were everywhere; if everywhere there could be a season, or at least a day devoted to laughter."
The Mardi Gras of 1872 is one of the most important in the history of the event. It is the year in which the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff outshone the most glittering pageant. For his visit the King of Carnival Rex came into being, also the Carnival colors of green, purple, and gold, and the Carnival theme song, "If ever I cease to Love" was adopted." Alexis had been captivated by the song as sung by the actress Lydia Thompson in Bluebeard so it was set to march time for Rex and became the official Mardi Gras tune, attaining immortality.
There are many Kings and Queens of Carnival organizations but there is only one King of Carnival, His Majesty King Rex.
Rex reigns on Mardi Gras from his Royal float, leading his parade through the streets to the applause of the yelling crowds who eagerly await the trinkets generously thrown by his krewe. City streets are turned into a playground for the population and visitors as the hilarious maskers take over, losing all identity behind their bizarre costumes. When the parade finally reaches Canal Street Rex rests before the Boston Club to exchange toasts with Her Majesty the Queen of Carnival, who awaits him on the Boston Club gallery. The parade later moves on as the Chief event in a full day of glittering pageantry.
On Mardi Gras night Rex and his Court hold their traditional ball and at midnight after much revelry, their Majesties with sweeping gestures, bid adieu to their many guests and depart for the meeting with their majesties the King and Queen of Comus. Together the two courts and their majesties participate in a grand march before the guests to the bewitching theme song "If ever I cease to Love" bringing New Orleans' Mardi Gras to a grand finale.
For much of the country, the day before Lent is just another Tuesday, but in New Orleans this particular Tuesday represents the last gasp of revelry before a period of austerity. In practical terms, it presented an opportunity to use up all of the grease and fat in the kitchen before Lent.
The late 1700's, saw pre-Lenten balls and fetes in the infant New Orleans. The name Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in French.
The masked balls continued until the Spanish government took over and banned the events. The ban even continued after New Orleans became an American city in 1803. Eventually, the predominant Creole population revitalized the balls by 1823. Within the next four years, street masking was legalized.
The early Mardi Gras consisted of citizens wearing masks on foot, in carriages, and on horseback. The first documented parade in 1837 was made of a costumed revelers. The Carnival season eventually became so wild that the authorities banned street masking by the late 1830's. This was an attempt to control the civil disorder arising from this annual celebration.
This ban didn't stop the hard core celebrators. By the 1840's, a strong desire to ban all public celebrations was growing. Luckly, six young men from Mobile saved Mardi Gras. These men had been members of the Cowbellians, a group that performed New Years Eve parades in Mobile since 1831.
The six men established the Mystick Krewe of Comus, which put together the first New Orleans Carnival parade on the evening of Mardi Gras in 1857. The parade consisted of two mule-driven floats.
This promoted others to join in on this new addition to Mardi Gras. Unfortunately, the Civil War caused the celebration to loose some of its magic and public observance. The magic returned along with several other new krewes after the war.
Following the American Civil War (1861 - 1865), many new krewes, or clubs, began offering additional parades and balls. The Krewe of Rex, organized in 1872, pioneered many innovations that became trademarks of New Orleans Mardi Gras. For example, Rex established the tradition of crowning a King of Carnival, selected the carnival colors (Purple for justice, Green for faith and Gold for power), and adopted the song "If Ever I Cease to Love" as a Mardi Gras anthem.