Contrary to popular belief, Mardi Gras celebrations actually being around 12 days before Fat Tuesday and each year ‘krewes’ (secret organisations) put on their own parades, each with its own theme. During this time around 12 million people take to the streets in New Orleans, bringing in around $300 million in direct and indirect income. Louisiana is the only state in which Mardi Gras is a legal holiday, however the tradition is now celebrated across the world.
The name ‘Mardi Gras’ is a translation from the French words for ‘Fat Tuesday’, the day before Lent. When French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste le Moyne Seur de Bienville arrived at a point around 60 miles south of New Orleans he named it Point du Mardi Gras, when his men realised that it was the eve of the festive holiday.
In 1703 a tiny settlement (also established by Bienville), named Fort Louis de la Mobile (originally called Fort Louis de la Louisiane), celebrated America’s first Mardi Gras. In 1704, Mobile established a secret society, similar to todays ‘krewes’ and in 1710 the ‘Boef Gras Societe’ was formed and began to organise parades on the day of Fat Tuesday. By the 1730s Mardi Gras was widely celebrated throughout New Orleans.
In the early 1740s, Louisiana’s governor, the Marquis of Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls. The wealthy and socially elite would dress in their best attire to attend and the balls were thrown as a celebration and a chance to overindulge before Lent began. The Creole population loved masking, dancing and revelling at celebrations.
At this time the celebration was not a party for everyone and those that were not invited to attend would watch as the upper crust travelled through the streets of New Orleans to the ball. Around one hundred years after these balls began, the elite organised themselves and began to travel in convoy, handing out food on their way.
By the late 1830s, New Orleans was holding street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. In 1856, six young Mobile natives (who remained anonymous) formed the Mystic Krewe of Comus and, joined by 52 locals, they paraded through the streets with two dazzling floats lighted by Flambeaux (gaslight torches). In 1870 the second krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, was formed and began to give ‘throws’ to the people along the way.
In the 1970s, ‘superkrewes’ such as Bacchus and Enymion, emerged with celebrities and entertainers lending their national popularity to the parades with enormous flats and marvellous costumes.
In 1872 a group of businessmen invented the King of the Carnival, Rex, to preside over the first daytime parade to honour a visit from the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff. They introduced Romanoff’s family colours of purple, green and gold as the carnival’s official colours, which remain today. Purple represents justice, green stands for faith and gold is for power. The King of Carinval’s humour and flair made him an instant success and a legal half-holiday for this day was created, along with the Mardi Gras song and flag.
In 1984 the first black carnival club, The Original Illinois Club, in New Orleans was created. However it was in 1909 when the famous Zulu krewe first paraded and poked fun at the pomp and circumstance of the old Mardi Gras krewes. In that first parade the Zulu krewe could not afford beads to use as throws and so instead they bought coconuts from the French market. The coconuts remain as the krewe’s ‘signature throw’; they are now hand painted and have become one of the most sought-after throws. In 1949, Louis Armstrong was honoured in his home town as King Zulu.
Today over fifty krewes take part in the Mardi Gras celebrations each year and their members completely fund the event, paying for the extravagant floats and their throws. The krewes are comparable to fraternities or sororities and members usually pay to join, which helps to fund the expensive floats. The krewes throw balls to fund the parades and each member buys all of his or her own throws.
In order to participate in the Mardi Gras parade, each Krewe must have a minimum of 14 and a maximum of 28 floats. Each float must be pulled by one tractor and krewes compete to have the longest and most extravagant floats. The Endymion krewe currently has the longest with nine sections being pulled by one tractor and 260 riders.
As well as having signature throws, the krewes also have their own signature floats. The krewe of Orpheus are known for having floats adorned with flowers. Bacchus’ signature floats are King Kong and Queen Kong, giant gorillas at which the public throw their beads.
Since 1947, Blaine Kern Studios has built breathtaking parade floats for parades and entertainment venues, such as Eurodisney and Universal Studios, all over the world. At Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, visitors can watch as these magnificent floats are being made and take a behind-the-scenes look at the magic of Mardi Gras.
Once the design has been sketched, the artists carve the Styrofoam base and then a layer of papier-mache is added, which protects the Styrofoam and creates a good surface for painting. Once the papier-mache has been added the floats are primed for painting and the artists use airbrush techniques to create graduated tones and soft washes of colours.
Underneath the extravagant decorations is a great feat of engineering. Each float can last for around 30 years, costs between 50 and 60 thousand dollars and has solid rubber tyres to avoid the possibility of a mid-parade puncture. As most people stay on the floats for between six and eight hours, the floats are designed with toilets and plenty of storage space for throws and beverages. Recent safety regulations state that everyone on board the float must wear a safety harness and, by law, float riders must also be masked at all times.
If you are not lucky enough to be in Nola for Mardi Gras, a visit to Mardi Gras World will give you an insight into why New Orleanians call Mardi Gras ‘the greatest free show on earth’.
- Information provided by Mardi Gras World