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Since the first modern-day pageant was presented in 1857, with time outs occasioned by World Wars, more than 1,800 Mardi Gras parades have been staged in metro New Orleans. The festivities have grown into one of the world's grandest tourist attractions. Yet for all its international acclaim, it can be difficult for a first-timer to grasp. The celebration has its own vocabulary, and Mardi Gras day is scheduled on a different date each year! Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Mardi Gras, however, is its connection to religion.
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During the 12 days preceding Mardi Gras, more than 60 parades and hundreds of private parties, dances and masked balls are annually scheduled in the metro area. Fat Tuesday is a legal holiday in New Orleans, a day when half the city turns out in costume to watch the other half parade! Then, promptly at midnight, the party's over as Ash Wednesday ushers in the austere Lenten season.
The single custom that most distinguishes Mardi Gras parades is that of throws - trinkets tossed from the floats - which turn New Orleans parades into unmatched crowd participation events. "Throw Me Something Mister" is the battle cry of the million-plus people who line the parade routes. Most popular among the millions of throws are those that illustrate the organization's logo and the parade's theme, including plastic drinking cups, medallion necklaces and colorful aluminum coins called doubloons.
Mardi Gras annually generates nearly half-a-billion dollars for the New Orleans economy. Since no commercial or corporate sponsorship of a Mardi Gras parade is permitted, it is the Carnival club members who put on the show and foot the entire bill.
Mardi Gras organizations are non-profit clubs called krewes, and many are named after mythological figures such as Aphrodite, Eros, Hermes, Pegasus and Thor. Each krewe is completely autonomous, and there is no overall coordinator of Carnival activities. The secrecy with which some of the older krewes cloak themselves is part of the mystique of Mardi Gras. Several do not reveal the theme of the parade until the night of the event, and the identity of their royalty is never publicized. Most of the newer organizations take a more public approach.
Krewe members pay dues, ranging from $250-$850. In addition, they spend as much as they wish on throws. Some krewes stage parades, others present private tableau balls or bal masques (masquerade balls in which scenes are acted out); many do both. About a dozen organizations dating from the 19th century use the Carnival ball as the highlight of the debutante season, as daughters of the socially elite members are presented at the city's Municipal Auditorium. Admittance is by invitation only and formal attire is required. Newer organizations have replaced the bal masque with lavish supper dances at the city's finer hotels. Krewes such as Bacchus, Orpheus, Endymion and Zulu have replaced the traditional ball with extravaganzas presented at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
A Carnival krewe is led by a captain, who is the permanent leader of the group. Each year, a king and queen are selected to reign over the parade. While most clubs select their royalty from within their own ranks, krewes such as Bacchus and Endymion invite guest celebrities to ride as their monarch or parade marshal. Stars such as Bob Hope, Billy Crystal, Dennis Quaid, Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, Dolly Parton, John Goodman and Harry Connick, Jr. have been so honored. The Krewe of Orpheus was founded by Harry Connick, Jr.
There is no overall theme for Mardi Gras, yet each individual parade depicts a specific subject. Among the more popular are children's stories, mythology, celebrities, entertainment and literature. The 15-39 floats in each procession are designed to illustrate the parade's theme, and the maskers are costumed to reflect the title of each float. But Mardi Gras parades are more than just floats. A 200-member parading krewe may actually have 3,000 participants, including band members, motorcycle groups, dance teams, clown units, etc.
While its precise European origins are shrouded in mystery, Mardi Gras received its first mention in North America in 1699. French explorer Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville camped on the Mississippi River on a spot 60 miles south of the present location of New Orleans. Knowing the date, March 3, was being celebrated as a holiday in his native France, he christened the site Point du Mardi Gras. During the next century, the celebration of Mardi Gras came to include private masked balls and random street maskings in the cities of Mobile and New Orleans. By the 1820s, maskers on foot and in decorated carriages began to appear on Fat Tuesday, and in 1837 the first documented procession in New Orleans occurred, but it bore no resemblance to today's Carnival.
The modern-day celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans was born in 1857 with the flambeaux-lit (torch-lit) nighttime parade of the Mystic Krewe of Comus. In 1871, the Twelfth Night Revelers presented Mardi Gras with its first queen. In 1872, Mardi Gras' first daytime procession was presented by Rex, the King of Carnival. The event was partially inspired by a visit from the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, who, legend has it, journeyed to New Orleans in pursuit of lovely singing sensation Lydia Thompson.
Ms. Thompson just happened to be starring in the burlesque play "Blue Beard," and the show's most popular melody was "If Ever I Cease to Love." It was played during the first Rex parade and has remained as the royal anthem of Mardi Gras. Rex also gave Carnival its flag and its official colors - purple for justice, gold for power and green for faith.
Les Mysterieuses, Carnival's first female organization, staged its premiere ball in 1896, but it was not until 1941 that the Krewe of Venus presented the first ladies' Mardi Gras parade. In 1909, Zulu, Carnival's first African-American parading krewe, was founded as a spoof of white Mardi Gras. Its parade is now one of the highlights of Fat Tuesday.
While membership in parading organizations was once limited to only a few citizens, the expansion of Mardi Gras into the suburbs and democratization of Mardi Gras in the 1960s and 1970s opened up participation to virtually everyone. Super krewes such as Bacchus and Endymion helped modernize the festivities. In New Orleans there are krewes for men, women, men and women, and families. On Mardi Gras day, about a dozen marching clubs cavort around town, including the historic Jefferson City Buzzards, founded in 1890, and the celebrity-filled Pete Fountain's Half-Fast Walking Club. For more than a century, the elusive Mardi Gras Indian tribes such as the Wild Tchoupitoulas and Yellow Pocahontas have also gathered on Carnival day. Their presentations and chants as they show off their "new suits" are a Mardi Gras day highlight.
But after all is said and done, Mardi Gras remains an event and a spirit that must be experienced to be understood. It's a mixture of centuries - old traditions and high-tech innovations. From the bawdy behavior of Bourbon Street to the family festival that Mardi Gras is everywhere else, the Carnival season in New Orleans truly defies description. Perhaps noted local author Don Lee Keith said it best: "In the truest sense, it is magic. But magic revealed is magic destroyed. And that is why the gods who made Mardi Gras dissolved the secret of that day in a chalice of mystery, leaving their creation forever without definition."
This article was written by Arthur Hardy, publisher of the annual Mardi Gras Guide magazine. This material may not be reproduced without permission of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, and full credit must be given to the author.