Mardi Gras Aerial Advertising

Day 2006, six months following Hurricane Katrina--features, Zulu, Rex, and the Rex and Queen toast Tuesday, February 28, 2006.

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the final day of Carnival, which begins on the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6.

Also known as Kings' Day or Twelfth Night, Jan. 6 celebrates the arrival of the three kings at Jesus' birthplace, thus ending the Christmas season. And in New Orleans, simultaneously starting Carnival. This festival of fun finds its roots in various pagan celebrations of spring, dating back 5,000 years.

Pope makes it official

But it was Pope Gregory XIII who made it a Christian holiday when, in 1582, he put it on his Gregorian calendar (the 12-month one we still use today).

He placed Mardi Gras on the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. That way, all the debauchery would be finished when it came time to fast and pray.

Much of the first part of the Carnival season is invitation-only coronation balls and supper dances hosted by private clubs known as krewes.

The public portion comes to life a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras when the krewes hit the streets, staging more than 70 parades in metropolitan New Orleans.

Mardi Gras arrived in North America with the LeMoyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville, in the late 17th century, when King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France's claim on the territory of Louisiana.

America's first Mardi Gras

The explorers eventually found the mouth of the Mississippi River on March 3, 1699, Mardi Gras of that year.

They made camp a few miles upriver, named the spot Point d'Mardi Gras and partook in a spontaneous party. This is often referred to as North America's first Mardi Gras.

A couple of decades later, Bienville founded New Orleans and soon Carnival celebrations were an annual event highlighted by lavish balls and masked spectacles. Some were small, private parties with select guest lists, while others were raucous, public affairs.

Collectively, they reflected such a propensity for frolic in the local citizenry that historian Robert Tallant wrote in his book "Mardi Gras" that "natives would step over a corpse on the way to a ball or the opera and think nothing of it."

Parades officially began in 1838.

On Ash Wednesday of that year, The Commercial Bulletin read: "The European custom of celebrating the last day of the Carnival by a procession of masqued figures through the streets was introduced here yesterday."

Over the next 20 years, Carnival became an increasingly rowdy event defined by drunkenness and violence. Eventually, churches and even the press began to call for its demise.

In 1857, Mardi Gras found itself on the verge of death.

The birth of the krewe

Then along came Comus, which actually started 27 years earlier in the wee hours of Jan. 1, 1830 when a group of young men walking home after a New Year's Eve celebration in Mobile, Ala., passed a store featuring an outdoor display of rakes, hoes and cowbells. Making the kind of decision inebriated young men are apt to, they picked up the supplies and headed to the mayor's house where they caused a stir. An obviously patient man, the mayor sobered them up and, according to historian Buddy Stall, made the motley krewe's leader an offer.

"Next year," hizzoner suggested, "why not organize yourselves and let everybody have fun?"
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Led by Michael Kraft, the group called themselves the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, paraded the following New Year's Eve, and was so successful that the procession became an annual event.

Now, jump ahead to 1857 when New Orleans city leaders were on the verge of canceling Mardi Gras for good. Six Cowbellions now living in the Big Easy proposed forming a new private club to present a parade based on a theme, with floats, costumed riders and flambeaux (torch carriers who lit the way) an orderly alternative to the chaos that Carnival had become. They chose the name Comus after the Greek god of revelry and coined the "krewe" appellation.

City leaders agreed and Comus was credited with saving Mardi Gras.

Then came the Revelers

It wasn't until after the Civil War that the second Carnival krewe made its debut in 1870. The new group chose Jan. 6 to present their parade and ball, naming themselves the Twelfth Night Revelers

Although they no longer parade, the Revelers' ball (along with the Kings' Day streetcar ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows) marks the official start of the season.

During the Revelers' first fete, an innovation was brought to Mardi Gras -- a queen. Well, almost. After their tableau was presented, court fools carried out a giant king cake, the traditional pastry of the season, which contained a golden bean. The plan was that pieces of cake would be presented to a group of young ladies and the one who found the bean would be crowned Carnival's first queen. However, it seems the fools were drunk and instead of presenting the cake, they either dropped it on or threw it at the women. When the flour cleared, none of the appalled females would admit to having the bean. The first Carnival queen wasn't, until the next year.

By 1872, new troubles were brewing in the city. Post-war carpetbaggery had reached its zenith and rumblings of revolt against the city government could be heard. As Carnival approached, fears of masked reprisals surfaced.

Rex and the Grand Duke

Then came the diversion city leaders needed. News arrived that Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff Alexandrovitch, brother of the heir apparent to the throne of Russia, had accepted the city's invitation to attend Mardi Gras.

A plan was hatched. A new krewe of prominent citizens from both the government and its opposition would be formed and a king of all Carnival would be chosen. The group would call itself the School of Design and its ruler was to be Rex (Latin for king).

What no one knew was that the duke had accepted because his visit would coincide with the New Orleans opening of singer Lydia Thompson's touring musical, in which she performed a nonsensical ballad called "If Ever I Cease to Love." (Supposedly, she had also sung the number privately for the duke during a Big Apple rendezvous.)

When news of Thompson and the duke finally hit the grapevine, public interest in the visit grew. Mardi Gras morning found the duke sitting in the official reviewing stand as Rex atop a bay charger led 10,000 maskers in a line more than a mile long.

Among them were a number of bands, all of which broke into "If Ever I Cease to Love" as they passed the prince. The romance was ill-fated, but after 134 years, Rex remains King of Carnival and "If Ever I Cease to Love" is still the official song of the season.

Zulu makes merry

The oldest parading African-American krewe is the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which first took to the streets in 1909. Not taking themselves as seriously as the staunch white krewes, the group dressed its king, William Story, in a sack and a crown fashioned from a lard can. A banana stalk was his scepter. Over the years, Zulu has become a perennial favorite and the krewe's gilded coconuts (painted gold and decorated with glitter) are one of the season's most prized throws.

By the 1950s, truck parades, composed of floats built atop flatbed trucks usually by families, had become well established. The late '60s saw the advent of the "superkrewes" Endymion and Bacchus, which broke with tradition by offering open memberships, larger floats and celebrity kings.

Carnival faced new challenges in the latter half of the 20th century. A 1979 police strike caused parades to be canceled in the city, but a number of them moved to the suburbs.

The City Council's anti-discrimination ordinance of 1988 called for krewes to open their ranks or get off public streets. In response, three of the four oldest krewes Comus (1857), Momus (1873) and Proteus (1882) took their floats and went home.

Rex remained and the other slots were filled. Proteus even returned in 2000 and the following year became the first krewe to parade in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

In 2002, Mardi Gras was celebrated under the shadow of the 9/11 terror attacks. Because Super Bowl that year was delayed, the two weekends of Mardi Gras parades were split, with a weekend of parades, then Super Bowl weekend in New Orleans, and then the final long weekend of Mardi Gras. The celebrations took place with troops in the streets and warplanes circling overhead.

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