The most flamboyant of Mardi Gras (from the French for “fat Tuesday”) celebrations in North America culminates in a riot of parades and throngs of laughing, drinking, dancing people in the streets of New Orleans, La.
The Mardi Gras celebrations symbolize New Orleans, “The City that Care Forgot,” to most people. The festivities actually start on Jan. 6 (EPIPHANY) with a series of private balls.
The tempo picks up in the last two weeks of the Carnival season, when the streets ring with 30 separate parades organized by committees called krewes. The parades consist of marching jazz bands and lavishly decorated two-story floats carrying the costumed and masked krewe royalty who toss “throws” to pleading spectators; these are beads or bonbons or the coveted Mardi Gras doubloons. Each of the parades has 15 to 20 floats, all decorated to express a certain theme.
Two of the biggest and most elaborate parades, the Krewe of Endymion and the Bacchus parade, take place on the weekend before Mardi Gras. On the day of Mardi Gras, designated the “Day of Un-Rule,” the traditional parades spotlight Rex, King of Carnival and Monarch of Merriment, in the morning, and Comus, God of Revelry, by torchlight at night. On that same evening the private balls of Rex and Comus are held.
At midnight, the madness of Carnival ends, and LENT begins, and a million or so spectators and participants face sobriety.
New Orleans had its first organized Mardi Gras parade in 1857. It consisted of two floats and was presented by the first Carnival society, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, its name alluding to John Milton's masque, Comus. The parade was apparently well received; it was one of the first local institutions revived after the Civil War.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the best known, but not the oldest Mardi Gras. A two-week pre-Lenten celebration in Mobile, Ala., stands alone as the oldest celebration of Mardi Gras in the country. It was first observed in 1703 by the French who had founded the port city the year before.
When the Spanish occupied Mobile in 1780, they moved it to the eve of the TWELFTH NIGHT of CHRISTMAS and paraded in grotesque costumes and masks. The celebrations were suspended during the Civil War, but were revived in 1866 by Joe Cain, a town clerk who togged himself out as an Indian chief and rode through the streets in a charcoal wagon. The old Mardi Gras societies reappeared, and new ones evolved.
Today a different mystic society parades each evening in the two weeks before Lent, and balls are held that are open to everyone. Mardi Gras itself, the day before ASH WEDNESDAY, is a legal holiday in the state of Louisiana.
Galveston, Texas, has a 12-day period of whoop-de-do leading up to the actual day of Fat Tuesday in this barrier-island city of Texas. About 200,000 spectators are attracted to the Mardi Gras festival, which was first held here in 1867.
Though it died out at the turn of the century, it was revived in 1985. Growing bigger every year, this celebration features masked balls, royal coronations, Cajun dances, jazz performances, and, of course, numerous parades with dramatic floats.
See also CARNIVAL and SHROVE TUESDAY.
Galveston Island Visitors Center 2328 Bdwy.
Galveston, TX 77550
409-797-5144 or 888-425-4753
New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau
2020 Saint Charles Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70130
504-566-5011 or 800-672-6124;
Mobile Bay Convention &Visitors Bureau
1 South Water St.
Mobile Bay, AL 36602
251-208-2000 or 800-566-2453;